Breathing life into drama: A Streetcar Named Desire

Each September, the life and career of renowned playwright Tennessee Williams is celebrated in his birthplace, Columbus, Mississippi. As I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog, Carrie, Nikki, and I are proud alumnae of Mississippi University for Women, which is located in Columbus and has an active hand in this event every year. In the wake of that annual celebration (and regrets that I couldn’t be there), Williams has been on my mind somewhat as of late, leading me to revisit some of my favorites from his body of work. For one reason or another, I’ve always felt a bit of a connection with many of Williams’ plays–Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, and The Glass Menagerie among them. But his 1947 masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, which I’ve discussed previously on this blog in the context of the 1951 film version’s challenges to the Production Code, is my favorite Williams play by far.

Streetcar is doubtlessly one of the best American plays ever produced–one of the best plays ever written, period. It is a searing, uncompromising, painfully honest examination of a group of broken, utterly fucked-up people. I mean, there’s really no better way to put it: these characters are less than whole, filled with weakness and depravity in almost equal measure. And yet, at the same time, they are intriguing, and their interactions completely engrossing, because the way in which Williams paints these characters is unerringly lively and vital–ripe for interpretation on stage and screen, as befitting the dramatic genre.

Drama, as a literary form, has appealed to writers practically since the dawn of written language. There is a reason that it has remained an unfailingly popular genre for centuries upon centuries, from the times of the ancient Greeks through the days of Shakespeare and Marlowe, from George Bernard Shaw to Eugene O’Neill to Henrik Ibsen and countless others. And it is summed up pretty succinctly by an African-American playwright, Amiri Baraka, whose work came to prominence in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. In his 1984 memoir The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, Baraka, in discussing the genesis of his controversial 1964 play Dutchman–in which a young white woman encounters a young black man on a train and engages him in a flirtatious, heated conversation, only to (spoiler alert!) viciously stab him to death in the end–explains his own initial attraction to the field of drama:

“I can see now that the dramatic form began to interest me because I wanted to go ‘beyond’ poetry. I wanted some kind of action literature, and the most pretentious of all literary forms is drama, because there one has to imitate life, to put characters upon a stage and pretend to actual life.”

In referring to drama as an “action literature,” Baraka makes a solid point about the nature of dramatic characters and storylines. When the words of playwrights are actually performed for an audience (whether that audience sees it live in a theater or projected onto a screen), those lines gain a power and a life that is sometimes inaccessible when merely reading them for oneself. And, I would argue, nowhere is this more evident than in Elia Kazan’s cinematic adaptation of Streetcar, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Brando, one of the most renowned devotees of the Method brand of acting, brings a raw, sexualized energy to the role of Stanley that is described, but not fully embodied, by the words in Williams’ play. Likewise, Leigh, a more classically-trained actress, lends the character of Blanche DuBois a subtle kind of dignity that is only hinted at in the play. Drama, by its very nature, allows readers to act out the lives of characters by placing them squarely in the character’s shoes and letting them vicariously—and temporarily—experience the action for themselves. By fleshing out these two fictional characters and presenting them on the screen, the filmed version of Williams’ play reveals the limitations of other forms of literature–those that are bound to the static page–by demonstrating the unparalleled power of fully-animated interpretation.

Characterization is highly important to the success of drama, particularly as a form of “action literature.” Dynamic characters are vital to move the plot of the play along, and when an equally dynamic actor is matched to an appropriate part, the performance only heightens our enjoyment and our understanding of the character’s actions and motivations. The antagonist of Streetcar, Stanley Kowalski, is a loathsome, cruel character in Williams’ play. But when the character is brought to life through the machinations of Brando, we begin to see new facets to the man. He is still loathsome—no mistake about that.  But certain elements of Brando’s portrayal of the character elicit new interpretations of Stanley’s behavior.

Stanley, Williams tells us, is a brute. His first action in the play, tossing a slab of meat to his adoring wife, Stella (Kim Hunter in the film), gives us the first hint of the primitive, Neanderthal-like nature of his physicality—the hunter has returned home to provide for his family. In fact, most of Stanley’s interactions throughout the play reflect this same primitive mindset: his questioning of Blanche’s story about the loss of the DuBois family home, Belle Reve; his drunken attack on Stella, culminating in a series of primal screams in the street; and, most telling of all, his almost nonchalant raping of his sister-in-law. That Stella endures his abuse says more about her reliance on him than any true remorse on Stanley’s part—for we see a definitive lack of remorse in the way in which he continues to bait and torment Blanche, finally sending her over the edge through his brutish attack. In the play, when he tells her, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” this adds an even more chilling, sinister twist to his machinations, as it becomes clear that Stanley has been planning his attack for weeks, lying in wait for the perfect opportunity.

When Brando slips into Stanley’s tight-fitting t-shirts, however, he adds an element of slyness and winking humor that is not fully evident within the text. Through Brando’s performance, we see the satisfaction he feels when Blanche fails to convince Stella to leave him. We experience the gleeful derision Stanley heaps upon Blanche, and the sheer joy he takes from reporting his findings about her past, including the affair with the young student: “They kicked her out of that high school before the spring term ended—and I hate to tell you the reason that step was taken! A seventeen-year-old boy—she’d gotten mixed up with.” There is an element of intelligence to this Stanley—he sees things in Blanche that are not evident to us, at least initially, and he knows how to manipulate a situation.

Furthermore, in actually seeing someone fill Stanley’s shoes, we are impressed anew by the sheer presence of the man. When he is in the same room with Stella and Blanche, he overshadows them easily, even when he is not speaking. Leigh underscores this in her performance, as many scenes find her cringing away, putting space between her oppressive brother-in-law and herself. When reading the play, however, these little elements are unclear, and Stanley is not as imposing on the page—his small actions have the effect of making the written character seem equally small in his pettiness.

The physicality of the character in the film is a necessary element to explain to contemporary audiences why the Kowalski marriage continues to thrive. True, Stella and Stanley share a strong sexual bond, and Stella herself tells Blanche that her husband’s brute strength tends to excite her more than frighten her: “Stanley’s always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing light bulbs with it … I was—sort of—thrilled by it.” Still, when Stanley pummels her after a long night of drinking, Stella leaves initially only to come back soon after, forgiving him without question. Such an action may seem impossible to fathom for some readers. Sexualizing Stanley by placing his lines in the mouth of a charismatic Brando, however, makes it clearer why Stella endures a relationship that is so unpredictably reliant on her husband’s moods. When Stanley, filled with remorse after beating the pregnant Stella, bellows her name from the street, collapsing at her feet–shirt torn, muscles bulging, and eyes brimming with torment–it’s such a powerful, erotically-charged moment that it’s easy to see why Stella wraps her arms around him and so readily brings him back to her bed.

The protagonist, Blanche, has come to her sister’s home in New Orleans to escape from the shame of her past. Her faded Southern belle act is convincing enough to fool Mitch (Karl Malden), at least for a while, and to convince her sister that all is well. But Stanley is no fool, and Blanche realizes she is up against a master. Leigh’s portrayal of Blanche illuminates the trapped quality of the character much more so than mere stage directions ever could. Her aversion to light is not only physical but mental; we see her withdrawal occurring by inches, with each expression of wide-eyed disbelief and almost childlike fear.

When the truth of her past comes to light for the audience, it is through Blanche’s interaction with a young newspaper boy with whom she flirts while waiting on a date with the much more age-appropriate Mitch. Leigh’s delivery of the line, “I want to kiss you just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth,” is almost innocent in its wistfulness, making it seem like nothing more than a foolhardy attempt for Blanche to grasp her youth once more. But the next line indicates that there is something much more disturbing at the heart of her flirtation: “Now run along, now, quickly! It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good–and keep my hands off children.” With this statement, our suspicions are aroused, a sense that is doubled in Leigh’s calculated portrayal, as the predator almost immediately gives way to the simpering Southern belle upon Mitch’s imminent arrival at the apartment.

Just as physicality is vital to the embodiment of Stanley on the screen, so, too, is it important in crafting the character of Blanche.  Although Leigh’s performance may at times elicit thoughts of another infamous Southern belle whom she portrayed on the big screen—the erstwhile Scarlett O’Hara of 1939’s Gone with the Wind—the world-weariness she brings to the role is a fitting interpretation of the character’s continued fall from grace. Her constant need to take baths—attempting to cleanse herself of her past sins—and the resistance she shows to being seen in the full light of day are mentioned in the play, but to actually watch Leigh attempt to dodge any source of potentially unflattering illumination and, very literally, hide from the light of truth, heightens the sense of fear and fragility that clings to Leigh’s portrayal of the character. Stanley approaches and Leigh’s Blanche visibly shrinks, as if trying to blend in with the furniture. Her overt femininity is a stark contrast to his oppressive masculinity, making the demonstration of the disparity between these characters’ physical presence much more viable on screen than in print.

Even though the end product was heavily censored, and some of the most unsavory scenes (such as the potentially graphic rape) were muted or otherwise completely excised from the film at the time of its release, A Streetcar Named Desire still embodies Baraka’s assertion that drama is an “action literature” that more closely imitates reality than any other literary form. Drama by definition reflects society’s values perhaps more so than any other type of literature because it is linked so closely to performance—to living, breathing life. In Kazan’s version of Streetcar, seeing Brando and Leigh spar on the screen underscores the importance of “action” in enhancing our understanding of some of the subtler themes of the play … which is just as it should be. When the lines of a play are performed for an audience, the viewers are subjected to an experience that closely mirrors their own, for drama, at its heart, is nothing less than an all-encompassing human experience.

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3 thoughts on “Breathing life into drama: A Streetcar Named Desire

  1. Brandie, a fascinating rumination on the nature of drama as applied to the film version of “Streetcar” and how much is involved in turning words or even ideas on a page into action. I particularly like the way you describe how Brando and Leigh take characters on the page and make them come to life, make them “dynamic” by adding their own individual touches to Williams’s characters. Elia Kazan also had a lot to do with helping them craft their performances. It makes me wonder what film versions of other plays he directed for the stage but didn’t direct on film–too many to name–would be like if he had directed them for the screen.

  2. Streetcar is undoubtedly Williams’ masterpiece, but like you, I love his body of work. Besides the most famous, I particularly like what was originally called “Eccentricities of a Nightingale”, the movie version of which is “Summer and Smoke.” Streetcar with Leigh, Brando and Hunter is just perfect — I’ve seen other versions, and none have come even close to their performances. I love the phrase “action literature.” As a teen, I used to get books of plays from the library, and read a great many, but there is nothing to compare with seeing it acted. The nuances, glances, expressions, all bring to life his incredible view of troubled people. You have written an intelligent and fascinating piece about this particular aspect of drama.

    I do wish Streetcar could have been filmed without deleting the controversial parts … Blanche’s discovery of her husband’s homosexuality, the rape, and particularly the real ending, where Stella goes right back to Stanley. These fill in the holes, most noticeable the reason Stella’s marriage was such a trauma to her. I remember reading that Leigh said it was silly that Blanche explained only that her husband was a sensitive poet! LOL!

    Wonderful piece, Brandie — a real pleasure!

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