A Legacy Named Desire

How Streetcar challenged expectations, teetering between the realistic and the symbolic.

A Streetcar Named Desire is often regarded as amongst the finest plays of the 20th century, if not of all time, and it is considered by many to be playwright Tennessee Williams’ greatest. It is also one of those rare ‘Before/After’ events: the theatre world drastically changed after the play opened on Broadway.

In 1947, the year of Streetcar’s premiere, Broadway was mostly made up of comedies, revivals of classic texts and musicals. The rule of thumb was that audiences wanted to be entertained with flimsy plots and catchy tunes. Streetcar not only challenged that notion but also presented an original experience: a poetic script that teetered between the realistic and the symbolic.

It won numerous prestigious awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer. Two years later, in 1949, Lawrence Olivier directed the UK premiere in London in a production that thrilled and challenged audiences and critics alike.

Both the Broadway and London runs would shape theatre, not only with its themes and language but also in its characters. Gore Vidal said that Stanley Kowalski ‘changed the concept of sex in America. Before him, no male was considered erotic.’ But Kenneth Tynan went further when writing about Olivier’s production, stating, ‘For the first time in its history, English theatre has been swayed and shaped by America.’

Both the Broadway and London productions enjoyed long, successful runs, and the US and UK would see tours of the production, bringing the play to larger audiences. But its appeal became far more widespread in 1951 when the film version was released.

Getting the iconic play before cinema camera proved difficult. The script had to trim some of the raw language, and the ending had to find a way to punish Stanley. And even when the film was complete, over five minutes worth of cuts had to be made to appease censors—cuts that would not be reinstated until 1993, over 40 years after its release.

But the film became acclaimed, and is now considered an important classic by audience, critics and academics. This is mostly down to the performances the film captures, many of whom were in either the Broadway or London cast. The film is considered to be the first demonstration of ‘method’ acting, depicting ultra-realistic performances and creating a style of acting that would become highly influential the world over. When the Oscars were awarded, the film would win three of the four acting awards, a feat rarely equalled (Brando would lose to Humphrey Bogart for his turn in The African Queen).

But the film would prove to be the first of many incarnations of the play. Over the years, several ballet companies would depict it—including a recent acclaimed production by Scottish Ballet. An opera premiered in 1995 and would be performed around the world, almost always to acclaim. The story and characters would also serve as a stimulus for artists, many using the themes and characters for inspiration. Famously, Neil Simon would use it when crafting his most celebrated play, The Odd Couple, pitting a brute versus an effeminate forced to live together, framing all of the action around poker games.

The play itself would have many revivals, attracting some of the best actors to take on some of theatre’s most difficult and challenging roles. And Stanley’s scream of ‘Hey Stella!’ would prove to be an often-repeated iconic moment within pop culture.

But the true legacy of the play is with the world that Williams made. He created flawed, complex characters who challenged the norm, and he presented female characters with sexual appetites. He also introduced a modern poetry spoken in a single voice that the stage hadn’t heard before.

In speaking about the importance of the play, Arthur Miller said that it planted ‘the flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theatre,’ ushering in what is universally considered a golden age of American theatre.

© Michael Cox

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A Streetcar Named Desire

By Tennessee Wiliams

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