A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams is an American playwright famous for three big plays: Glass Menagerie in 1944, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. If The Glass Menagerie propelled Williams to fame, Streetcar ensured that his name would never leave the ranks of the playwright elite. The play, which tells the story of an aging Southern belle’s difficult relationship with her aggressive brother-in-law, was successful both commercially and critically. It opened in December of 1947 on Broadway and ran for over two full years, earning two Tony awards for the stage production and the 1948 Pulitzer Prize.
The initial Broadway cast is almost as famous as the play for one big reason: Marlon Brando. (Whom you know as the Godfather, but who was the Brad Pitt of his day when he was younger.) Virtually an unknown at the time of the play’s casting, Streetcar propelled this young star to big-time fame after the Broadway production (and cast) was converted to a blockbuster movie in 1951. The only change from the Broadway cast was the role of protagonist Blanche DuBois, given in the film to then-famous Vivian Leigh (Scarlett from Gone with the Wind), so the movie would have some star-power.
Streetcar really pushed the envelope of what was acceptable sexually in the 1940s, and Brando took the role of aggressive, macho Stanley Kowalski to the very edge (critic Arthur Miller aptly called him “a sexual terrorist, a tiger on the loose”). His performance was so memorable that many theaters to this day refuse to produce the play on the grounds that any actor trying to portray Stanley Kowalski would inevitably be written off as a lesser version of Brando.
Speaking of sexuality, Streetcar was censored when it was converted to film, like another Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both plays include a gay man who, restricted by social boundaries in the 1940s and 50s, marries a woman. While this is a central part of Cat, it is a minor part of Streetcar. Streetcar also shares similarities with Williams’s first big play, Glass Menagerie. Streetcar's Blanche Dubois resembles Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie; both are Southern belles who have difficulty moving past their outdated social ideals.
These common themes appear to be autobiographical for Williams, who was raised in Tennessee (hence the nickname) and grew up gay in a homophobic society. In fact, some believe that Williams based the character of Stanley Kowalski on a man named Pancho Rodriguez Gonzalez whom he was dating at the time (source).
Why Should I Care?
Oh… you're still here. Pardon Shmoop. We were just practicing our audition. But if you've indulged us this long, that means you're already at least a little bit interested in reading—or performing—A Streetcar Named Desire. And you should be. With arresting moments like the famous Stella-shout, what's not to love?
Yep, there's enough drama here for ten plays, because Williams crafts complex and contradictory characters who will definitely remind you of people that you know. In this way, the play is a study of the mysteries of human… well, desire. Unlike a streetcar, which follows a predictable track, desire tends to go all over, willy-nilly, running into dead ends, then branching out into several avenues at once. Williams gets that, and he portrays the experiences of his characters accordingly.
Stella, Blanche, and Stanley are fragile, flawed, and fumbling—in other words, just like the rest of us. Sure, we may not all be as pitiful as Blanche, or as willing to turn a blind eye as her sister. And we definitely don't all galumph around like a shaved ape, à la Stanley. But we're betting that these characters' vulnerabilities, tragic mistakes, and doomed dreams might ring more bells than you'd care to admit. These characters are just like folks you know, which makes their struggles all the more haunting.