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Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The epigraph to A Streetcar Named Desire is a stanza from Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower”:

  “And so it was I entered the broken world
  To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
  An instant in the wind [I know not whither hurled]
  But not for long to hold each desperate choice.”

These words, and with the poignant image they evoke, resonate enchantingly with a mood of unmitigated desolation, of both the protagonist and the locale, that pervades the play, which is now considered one of Tennessee Williams’s best, and indisputably his most well-known. Continuing his interest in the paralysing effect of misplaced hopes and dogged delusions, Streetcar repeated the success of The Glass Menagerie, by all accounts the play that catapulted Williams to fame, when it opened in Broadway in 1947. A cinematic version soon appeared in 1951, of which Elia Kazan, fresh from his critical success with the stage version, reprised his role as the director. The production features most of the original Broadway cast, excluding Jessica Tandy, who was replaced by Vivien Leigh in a bid to generate more public interest (Marlon Brando was still then a virtual unknown). Selected for preservation by US’s NFR, the film is noted for the bleak but realist directorial skill of Kazan, and the galvanising performance of the sterling cast, amongst them a young Brando exemplifying the barnstorming vigour of method acting, all combined to do full justice to Williams’s remarkable artistry.

While reading the play, one gets a feeling that each scene is perpetually steeped in a smouldering gloom; its characters, like spectres, materialise gradually from the void once summoned. This is especially true in the case of the heroine- Blanche DuBois, a wired, prissy, volatile southern belle whose “delicate beauty must avoid a strong light.” Elsewhere in the play she proclaims: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” In the film Blanche consciously and incessantly dodges the onslaught of light by seeking refuge in darkness, on occasions with only half of her face visible in close-ups, her eye flits and glowers following many nerve-jangling conversations with other characters. Such fear of light somehow evolves to a fear of whoever that assumes the power of a thunder, dispelling the looming shadows and compelling her out of her pretense. This untoward assailant of Blanche’s illusion is Stanley Kowalski, her rumbustious, louche, unapologetically brutal brother-in-law, who, in the play, is described as possessing an “animal joy” that is “implicit in all his movements and attitudes.” In the film Kowalski is rendered less of an animalistic sadist than he should be, as Brando brings in an almost sympathetic grace to the character, evident in his sweet and sometimes hilarious verbal exchanges with his wife, Stella, and a genuine though latent pity for the languishing Blanche.

Though at times mannered and stilted in her performance that makes Blanche almost like a Shakespearean tragic heroine, Leigh’s deliverance is lyrical and nuanced, her seamless shift from a subdued kitten to a howling tigress is no less astounding than Brando’s offhand, brassy attacks on all kinds of put-on civility. The pair’s seething ferocity has its moments of armistice, however, and is shrewdly complemented by the relative equableness of their supporting cast- most notably Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Blanche’s staid suitor, Mitch.

Playwright Peter Shaffer once commented that Williams’s play could not “fail to be electrifyingly actable. He could not write a dull scene.” Such enduring entertainment implicit in Williams’s work belies a lingering sense of woe and nostalgia. Invariably those characters fight for their ideals and dreams and lose; their masks of illusions are brutally torn asunder and their future remains uncertain as before. Williams once wrote that: “We are all civilised people, which means that we are all savages at heart but observing a few amenities of civilised behaviour.” Those words find an unparalleled testament inStreetcar, in which civility is a delicate piece of “blue piano” music occasionally interspersed with the animal cry of savages. All are victims in the end.


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