Tennesee Williams'

A Streetcar Named Desire

November 7-23
Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium

Only Passing Through

A Commissioned Essay by Stephen Mounkhall

In 1947 – the year of the first Polaroid Camera, the year of the Truman Doctrine, and the year that Jackie Robinson signed a professional baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers – a little-known actor named Marlon Brando was cast as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams second play on Broadway, A Streetcar Named Desire. The baby boomers and The Cold War and the Civil Rights movement were just getting started. Peg O’ My Heart as performed by the Harmonicats spent 8 weeks at number one on the Billboard Charts, Miracle on 34th Street was a box office smash, and Brando’s frank swashbuckling sexuality must have been quite a shock to the theater going public ten years before Elvis was forbidden from swiveling his hips on television. We can still vicariously experience some of that young Brando feeling in the movie version made a few years after the Broadway run. When the book is taught in high schools, the cover page is often a screen shot of a shirtless Brando, and his physique rarely goes entirely without notice during class discussions.

But Streetcar is not only Stanley’s play. His dynamic dramatic naturalism confronts Blanche DuBois’ old world melodrama. Blanche is a wraith from the fading dream of southern plantation aristocracy and Stanley is “a different species.” Hailing from a Polish immigrant family, he is fond of bowling and red meat and the Napoleonic Code. Much of the energy of the play comes from Stanley and Blanche’s conflict, a clash of classes and wills that traps Stella between them. The audience’s recognition that Stella will have to make a choice between her husband and her sister is as much a part of the play’s tragedy as any of the final scenes’ devastating events.

Annex - Brando, Marlon (A Streetcar Named Desire)_02

A 24 year-old Marlon Brando on set as Stanley Kowalski

In The New York Times Drama Section, on November 30, 1947–four days before the New York opening of A Streetcar Named Desire – Williams published an essay called, On A Streetcar Named Success. The tone of this essay, overall, is angry and scared. Most of the essay worries that the success he has gained from his first Broadway play will anesthetize him and ruin him as an artist, but it starts in a more observational and emblematic mode: “Sometime this month I will observe the third anniversary of the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie, an event which terminated one part of my life and began another about as different in all external circumstances as could be well imagined. I was snatched out of a virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans.” And, of course, just as abruptly, the trappings of success can sometimes be swept from the lives of Americans.

Blanche is involved in this most American of themes – reinvention. Her social mobility is the abrupt falling kind, and when she shows up in the city, she doesn’t have enough money to rent a hotel room. Long before she seeks out the “kindness of strangers,” Blanche is relying on the kindness of her relatives. Her backstory reverses the recent history of her author, but they both find themselves in places where they do not feel that they belong. Finely observed details of social class permeate this play and its naturalistic cousin, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which saw its premier two years later in 1949. Paul Fussell, in his 1983 book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, posits that being “middle-class” is concomitant with feeling insecure. The truly upper class folks need not worry. Nothing threatens their inheritance. The rest of us labor under the possibility of economic reversal.

As Brooks Atkinson put it in a New York Times article that reconsidered Streetcar at the end of the 1947-48 season, Tennessee Williams had an affinity for this kind of a character: “To a less perceptive person, Blanche DuBois would be dreadfully uninteresting. She is vain, capricious, snobbish and deceitful. But Mr. Williams has had the poetic wisdom to realize that there are reasons behind the desperate façade she has set up against the world. The genteel tradition in which she was reared has not prepared her for the disasters of outrageous fortune.” Her onstage fall is not as precipitous as Aristotelian tragedy would indicate; when the audience meets her, her circumstances are already severely reduced. But Atkinson plumbs the parallels effectively, writing that Blanche’s “agony is no less poignant than the suffering of Oedipus Rex, the victim of whimsical Greek gods with malign dispositions. To tell the truth, the fate of Blanche Dubois purges and terrifies me more deeply than the fate of Oedipus Rex. His gods never threaten me, but her gods are hard at work under a democratic constitution and they speak English. They do not inquire into a person’s ancestry or bank account before they overwhelm him with tragedy.” We can look back at some parts of this play and see them as old-fashioned. The streetcar line begun by the New Orleans Railway & Light Company in 1920 that ran from Canal Street and turned onto Bourbon, veered left of Pauger St., and then went down Dauphine to Desire St. was already a bus by 1948. But the human tragedy of Blanche walking through the poker game, saying, “Please don’t get up. I’m only passing through” is for all time.

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About Stephen Mounkhall

Stephen Mounkhall is a high school English teacher in Scarsdale, New York.  He has published work in First Intensity, Columbia College Review, Mudfish, Global City review, American Letters and Commentary, Entelechyjournal.com and Necessaryfiction.com.