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The Brutal Beauty of A Streetcar Named Desire

A review of Tennessee Williams' 1947 play

Wikimedia Commons

As far as I’m concerned, even the ushers and ticket-takers at the Ethel Barrymore Theater are beautiful these nights, and the cop on the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Eighth Avenue, and his horse. Such is the effect of a magnificent play, magnificently done. The play is A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, and the production is the result of Elia Kazan’s direction, Jo Mielziner’s scenery and lighting and, I suppose, Irene Selznick’s money, all of which have my unqualified blessing. 

The play is better than Williams’s other success, The Glass Menagerie, because, while it has all of the tenderness, poetry, observation and wit of the earlier piece, it adds the element of true tragedy to its other merits.

Fable. It is a despairing and lovely play, in which the author, in oblique parable form, says that beauty is shipwrecked on the rock of the world’s vulgarity; that the most sensitive seekers after beauty are earliest and most bitterly broken and perverted. It is an answer, however unintended, to Harvey and The Iceman Cometh, which said that illusion provides the necessary armor behind which life can survive. A Streetcar Named Desire (and what a haunting, musically dissonant title it is) tells us that illusion is an armor, but one which is always pierced, and in the most mortal spots. 

But the parable is hidden artfully in the body of the play. While you are exposed to the magic on the Barrymore stage, you see only the suffering, doomed struggles of a lying, posing, half-demented, pathetic, fully drawn woman, whose dreams are all lace and magnolia, and whose life, given cheaply to whisky and men, has been unbelievably raw and sordid. You may think, as I do, that Williams’s generalization is too easily defeatist, that he himself has dipped into the most squalid depths and come up with a steadily beautiful work of art; but, particularly, there is an awesome credibility about the character of his main creation, Blanche du Bois. She is as real to us as if she were a living woman put to the torture and done to death in our own front parlor.

Language of life. The play is written with a triumphantly heightened naturalism, in which the rhythms and images of ordinary life are subtly combined and contrasted with a verselike elegance of phrase. It falls on the ear like fresh rain after the businesslike tracts of manufactured dialogue which have too long done duty for human speech on the American stage. It finally has the surprising effect of seeming infinitely more real, more like life itself, than all the clipped banalities lesser playwrights put together in the dreary name of realism. 

The production matches the script point for point. Absolutely arbitrary, with a back wall through which we can see the street beyond, with a steel staircase spiraling off to one side, going God-knows-where, with lights softly growing in intensity and capriciously fading off into darkness, with a spotlight lovingly following the heroine throughout the evening, with voices and music breaking in again and again with no reasonable justification but thunderous effect, the director and scene designer have boldly realized that a world on the stage has the limits, the beauty and the belief that the artist wishes them to have. 

In his direction Kazan has caught the combination of Southern, rambling languor, slashed by moments of blazing violence, that the play calls for. In the same way, Jo Mielziner has designed a setting that is at once sordid, ugly, dreamlike, and glorious.

Acting power. Jessica Tandy, in the heroic role of Blanche, suffers only from the fact that some seasons back we all saw Laurette Taylor in another Williams play. Everything that talent, intelligence, discipline can do, Miss Tandy does. We pity her, we are amused by her, we suffer with her, and are enchanted with the clarity and grace with which she speaks her lines—and at the end, broken and bereft of reason, she leaves us desolate. But the solitary and touching genius that was Miss Taylor’s is not here. It is unjust to judge an actress by such a fanatic standard, but it is impossible not to remember. 

With his brooding, savage portrayal of the violent Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando arrives as the best young actor on the American stage. Most young men in our theater seem hardly violent enough to complain to a waiter who has brought them cream instead of lemon. Brando seems always on the verge of tearing down the proscenium with his bare hands.

Representing the healthy, driving forces of the flesh, Brando plays a useful trick on us. He is so amusing in a direct , almost childlike way in the beginning, and we have been so conditioned by the modern doctrine that what is natural is good, that we admire him and sympathize with him. Then, bit by bit, with a full account of what his good points really are, we come dimly to see that he is one of the villains of the piece, brutish, destructive in his healthy egotism, dangerous, immoral, surviving. By a slouching and apelike posture, by a curious, submerged and almost inarticulate manner of speech, by an explosive quickness of movement, Brando documents completely a terrifying characterization.

Forgotten role. In almost every play, no matter how excellent, the author usually neglects one character. In this play it is Stella Kowalski, Blanche’s sister. The idea for the character is interesting—the upper-class girl who for the overbearing pleasures of the flesh has willfully and delightedly allowed herself to become the slattern her husband can desire and understand. But in its development the character is skimped; neither the slattern nor the belle is convincing. Miss Kim Hunter, playing this troubled role, is baffled by her problem and leaves it where she found it. On almost any other stage in New York she would probably appear as a superior actress. But in this gifted company, new standards must be applied. 

I must put in a word about one of my favorite actors, Karl Maiden, who seems, in a wide variety of parts through the recent years, never to have been able to do any wrong. Here, as a shy, anguished, groping, and disappointed suitor, he supplies a rueful humor and an elephantine delicacy that are immensely helpful. 

I regret that space does not permit examination of another important event—the Experimental Theatre’s brave production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. Next week, when I have recovered somewhat from A Streetcar Named Desire