A Streetcar Named Desire Introduction
In A Nutshell
Let's just let the New York Times introduce Streetcar, shall we? Ahem hem hem:
Depending on your feelings about "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "A Streetcar Named Desire" is either the greatest or second-greatest play ever written by an American. (Source)
Um—dang. There you have it, folks: according to many in the know, this is either the #1 or #2 most amazing play scribbled by someone from the US of A. Enough said?
Hardly. There's pretty much never enough said about A Streetcar Named Desire—which is why it stays pertinent even though it's about issues (Southern belles, mid-century chastity, strict gender norms) that seem super-dusty in the 21st Century.
So let's get down to the nuts and bolts.
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... even decades after his death. 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. Streetcar propelled this young star to big-time fame after the Broadway production (and cast) was converted to a blockbuster movie in 1951. Brando took the role of aggressive, macho Stanley Kowalski to the very edge (critic Arthur Miller called him “a sexual terrorist, a tiger on the loose”). His performance was so memorable that many theaters to this day refuse to produce Streetcar 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 claustrophobic social boundaries in the 1940's and 50's, marries a woman. 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 he was dating at the time (source).
So there you have it: Streetcar propelled both Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando into the fame stratosphere, nabbed a bunch of awards, and dealt with issues of gay repression a long time before most people even had the word "gay" in their vocabularies.
But of course, to get a complete idea of how awesomesauce this play really is... well, you'll have to read it.
Why Should I Care?
Oh… you're still here. Well this is embarrassing. 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 maybe 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 in Streetcar 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 Stella. And we definitely don't all galumph around in torn undershirts, à la Stanley. (Or shout as much as he does.) And, unlike these unforgettable characters, we're not simmering with barely-contained sexual tension all. the. freaking. time.
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... and makes them entirely impossible to forget. If you don't believe us, ask any Stella you know if someone has randomly screamed her name, Stanley Kowalski-style.
Which reminds us: Hey Stella! Stellllll-aaahhhh!