By Robert Franklin Coleman
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, in its first year of production in New York (1947) received the Pulitzer Prize, the Donaldson Award, and the New York Drama Critics Award. It won praise not only for Williams and director Elia Kazan, but for Marlon Brando as Stanley, Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch. The 1951 film reunion featured the original director, as well as the entire cast except Jessica Tandy who was replaced with Vivien Leigh, and continued to pile up praise and awards, including Oscars for Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Marlon Brando’s stage and screen performances as Stanley Kowalski were nothing less than epochal, and any actor who has played the role since has inevitably been compared to Brando.
Such a strong role is balanced, of course, by the character of Blanche Dubois who has been portrayed on stage and screen by such actresses as Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Uta Hagen, Tallulah Bankhead, Claire Bloom, Faye Dunaway, Ann Margaret, and Blyth Danner. The role is perhaps the most well known and memorable of all the roles in the play–and “the visionary company of love” (A Streetcar Named Desire [New York: Penquin Books, 1974], epigraph) which Blanche hoped for from Stella and then from Mitch is “visionary” only because these two people are too broken and self centered and unable to reach out to one so desperate and lonely and displaced.
Blanche, having lost her family home, Belle Reve, and her husband, has come to her sister Stella, a woman of about twenty-five, and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, an ex-soldier of about thirty from a working class background.
In Williams’s stage directions, Blanche is described as being about thirty. We are told that “her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth” (15).
One of the problems with this play has been that Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Stanley Kowalski–one of the most famous renditions ever by an American actor in any role–has tended to make audiences see the play as primarily Stanley’s, and not Blanche’s, which seems to run counter to the author’s intentions. Her final line of the play, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” (142), has become a permanent addition to modern cultural mythology.
Blanche is among the last vestiges of a failed southern aristocracy, having lost everything, including a marriage to a young homosexual who commits suicide, and has come, literally, in a streetcar named Desire through the cemeteries to the Elysian Fields, once the Greek city of the dead, but now located between the railroad tracks and the river in a shabby part of New Orleans.
As an epigraph to the play, Williams chose four lines from Hart Crane’s poem, “The Broken Tower”: “And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, it voice / An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) / But not for long to hold each desperate choice.”
Blanche finds herself in such a “broken world.” As Williams himself remarks, the play is about “the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society” (Charles Highan, Brando: The Unauthorized Biography [New York: New American Library, 1987], 58).
Those who insist upon seeing Stanley as some sort of Lawrentian pagan naturalist who attains a kind of religious communion through a lust for life and love are grossly misreading the play. Stanley’s “union” with Stella is mere pleasure and release and nothing at all sacramental. He has no qualms about not only betraying Stella but brutally violating her sister on the very night that the symbol of their “union” is born.
The tragedy of the play is partly Blanche’s: the tragedy of the disparity between dream and reality. But the tragedy is also ours, insofar as we allow our own guilts, insecurities, fears, and self-centeredness to prevent us from reaching out to those even more fragile than we. This is especially so if they are among those close to us, who look to us for succor–if we force them “to depend upon the kindness of strangers.” To see this as Stanley’s tragedy is clearly counter to the author’s intention, as expressed in verbal and visual codes in the text.
Furthermore, the original director, Elia Kazan, a close personal friend of Williams, in his director’s notebook envisions each of the scenes in the play as a step in Blanche’s progression from hope to expulsion. Blanche first comes to Stella as her last chance for acceptance. Searching to find a place where she can belong, she is once more excluded as an outsider (scenes 1 3). Her brother-in-law Stanley sees her as both a bother and as potential prey for his lust. Then Blanche thinks she had found in his card-playing friend Mitch a match for her (scenes 4 6). But Mitch deserts her (scene 7). She then believes that revealing everything about her past might save her, but she is rejected and escapes into a world of illusion. Then Stanley jolts her back into reality and brutally rapes her (scenes 8 10). Finally, Blanche is disposed of, sent to an insane asylum, and expelled from the world she had so desperately looked to for help.
She says, finally, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” (142) and poignantly expresses her tragic condition in a world where the supposedly sane people are crazy and the sensitive and delicate are driven mad.