On December 3, 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. It was the third full-length play by Tennessee Williams, a 36-year-old writer whose Broadway debut, The Glass Menagerie, was just two years earlier. Streetcar ran for more than two years clocking in at 855 performances, the longest running production of any of Williams’s many plays. Williams won his first Pulitzer Prize for this drama (a second was awarded in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and it continues to be studied and produced in schools and theaters across the United States. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of its opening, let’s look back at the original Broadway production and some of the play’s many adaptations.
The action begins with the arrival of Blanche DuBois at the New Orleans home of her sister, Stella Kowalski. Blanche references the title of the show among her first lines as she explains to one of Stella’s neighbors that “they told me to take a streetcar named Desire….” Having suffered the loss of her family home and her job, Blanche is emotionally and mentally fragile. She is no match for the corrosive cruelty of her brother-in-law, Stanley, and ultimately suffers an emotional breakdown. The play ends with a doctor and a nurse leading Blanche away from the Kowalski home.
Jessica Tandy starred as Blanche in the original Broadway production, with Kim Hunter as Stella and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. Karl Malden played Mitch, a poker buddy of Stanley’s and a potential love interest for Blanche. Mitch’s ultimate rejection of Blanche immediately precedes her final crushing showdown with Stanley. According to the Internet Broadway Database, Streetcar was Hunter’s first Broadway credit. Coincidentally, the play marked Brando’s final appearance on the Broadway stage. The youngest of the four main cast members, Brando was a rising stage star. His performance in the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire brought him national acclaim.
The film adaptation was released on September 19, 1951. Although Tandy won a Tony Award for her portrayal as Blanche, she was the only one of the four main cast not to reprise her role for the film version. Vivian Leigh portrayed Blanche and won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. Hunter and Malden were also awarded Oscars for their respective roles, but Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart. Despite this loss, Brando’s portrayal of Stanley and his desperate plea of “Hey, Stella!” remains part of popular culture to this day.
The film received an impressive 12 Academy Award nominations including best director for Elia Kazan and best costume design for Lucinda Ballard, both of whom worked on the original Broadway production. Alex North’s score for the film was also nominated for an Oscar. Though North lost to Franz Waxman, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranks the Streetcar score at number 19 in its list of the greatest film scores of all time. (AFI puts the film itself as number 47 in its top 100 movies of all time.)
North also composed music for a ballet based on Williams’s play, which was choreographed by Valerie Bettis and performed by the Slavenska Franklin Ballet Company. The ballet premiered in Montreal, Canada, in 1952 before moving to the New Century Theatre in New York City later that year, roughly eleven blocks north of where the play premiered. Mia Slavenska performed the role of Blanche, and her company co-founder, Frederic Franklin, danced as Stanley. Over the ensuing decades, at least seven other choreographic works based on A Streetcar Named Desire were performed in Alabama, British Columbia, California, England, Germany, Hungary, and Scotland – each set to the music of a different composer.
In 1995, André Previn adapted the play into an opera with a libretto by Philip Littel. Three years later, Previn conducted its world premiere with the San Francisco Opera. The play was also adapted for television in 1995. Starring Alec Baldwin as Stanley, Jessica Lange as Blanche, and Diane Lane as Stella, this was the second television adaptation. (An earlier version had been produced in 1984.) For some television watchers (this author included), their first exposure to Williams’s play was its musical send up in “A Streetcar Named Marge,” a 1992 episode of the animated series The Simpsons written by Jeff Martin.
In the 75 years since it premiered, A Streetcar Named Desire has remained a part of the cultural conversation. Revived eight times on Broadway, most recently in 2012, its popularity endures on community and regional stages across the country, and translations, adaptations, or the original text are performed around the world. Scripts, recordings, film and television adaptations, and critical investigations are all discoverable within the Library’s holdings including in the Alex North Music for Documentary Film, Theater, Dance, and Concert Collection and the Manuscript Division’s Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy Papers. I invite you to dig into the Library’s resources and figure out what your version of A Streetcar Named Desire could look like.
As a footnote, but a not unimportant one, mention should be made of Edna Thomas, the Lady Macbeth in the 1936 Harlem Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, who performed the brief but symbolically important role of the Mexican Flower Woman in the original staging (1947-49) and two revivals (1950 and 1956) as well as in the film (1951), her only screen appearance. The role is small, and even smaller on screen, but her inclusion in each of these productions suggests the extent to which she was valued by Elia Kazan, who directed her on stage and film. Streetcar, in any case, provides us with the only opportunity to see her perform.