A Streetcar Named Desire opened in New York at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Scene 5, Streetcar Named Desire
BLANCHE: Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?
Tennessee Williams lived in New Orleans while finishing Streetcar which, at that time, was called The Poker Night. Here is Kenneth Holditch, who gives literary tours in New Orleans:
[Williams] said from that apartment he could hear that rattletrap streetcar named Desire running along Royal and one named Cemeteries running along Canal. And it seemed to him the ideal metaphor for the human condition.
Tennessee Williams on Irene Selznick, who was chosen to produce Streetcar:
She is supposed to have 16 million dollars and good taste. I am dubious.
Elia Kazan on scripts:
“One must do one’s best and at a certain point say, ‘I’ve done all I can. I’m not going to make this better.’
I’ve noticed that the best pieces of writing for the theatre I’ve known are complete at birth. The first draft had it — or didn’t. In both Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, I asked the author for no rewriting, and rehearsals didn’t reveal the need for any. Those plays were born sound. The work, the struggle, the self-flaggelation — had all taken place within the author before he touched the typewriter. usually when there is a lot of tampering and fussing over a manuscript, there’s something basically wrong to begin with.”
Tennessee Williams, letter to Jay Laughlin, April 9, 1947, included in The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 2: 1945-1957:
I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays. One of them, laid in New Orleans, A STREETCAR CALLED DESIRE, turned out quite well. It is a strong play, closer to “Battle of Angels” than any of my other work, but is not what critics call “pleasant”. In fact it is pretty unpleasant.
In 1947 (when Streetcar was still in the planning stages), Williams saw Arthur Miller’s All My Sons on Broadway and was blown away. Kazan had directed. Williams immediately reached out to Kazan, striking up a correspondence (obviously having Kazan in mind to direct his new “unpleasant” play STREETCAR CALLED DESIRE). Kazan had reservations at first. Williams’ stuff perhaps seemed too fragile, ephemeral, effeminate even. Kazan responded to Miller’s social and political commentary (as a red-dyed Lefty from way back), and Williams’ work is apolitical, although you could make a case that he is the most political of writers, without ever mentioning politics. But read Miller’s and Williams’s work side by side, and you can see the difference. Miller’s plays are openly unabashedly political. Kazan said, “Miller seemed more my kind.” Kazan recognized Williams’ talent but just wasn’t sure if it was his cup of tea as a director. How little we know ourselves at times! Williams’ agent Audrey Wood opened up negotiations with Kazan, also looping in Irene Selznick. At some point, early on, the negotiations broke down and Kazan withdrew his interest, causing everyone to go into a tailspin. Eventually, they came to an agreement, and Kazan signed back on – but before that, Williams wrote Kazan (or “Gadg” as he was known to his friends, short for “Gadget”) a letter. I love these early letters because their relationship has not solidified yet. Theirs ended up being a spectacular collaboration, one of the most important in American theatrical history, but they didn’t know that in 1947.
Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan, April 19, 1947.
I am bitterly disappointed that you and Mrs. Selznick did not come to an agreement. I am wondering what was the primary trouble – the script itself or your unwillingness to tie up with another producer. Frankly I did not know that you were now in the producing field. Working outside of New York has many advantages but a disadvantage is that you lack information about such things. I have known you only in the capacity of actor and director.
I am sure that you must also have had reservations about the script. I will try to clarify my intentions in this play. I think its best quality is its authenticity or its fidelity to life. There are no “good” or “bad” people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts. Stanley sees Blanche not as a desperate, driven creature backed into a last corner to make a last desperate stand – but as a calculating bitch with “round heels”. Mitch accepts first her own false projection of herself as a refined young virgin, saving herself for the one eventual mate – then jumps way over to Stanley’s conception of her. Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego. That is the way we all see each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition – all such distortions within our own egos – condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions in our own egos, the corresponding distortions in the egos of the others – and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each others naked hearts. Such a case seems purely theoretical to me.
However in creative fiction and drama, if the aim is fidelity, people are shown as we never see them in life but as they are. Quite impartially, without any ego-flaws in the eye of the beholder. We see from outside what could not be seen within, an the truth of the tragic dilemma becomes apparent. It was not that one person was bad or good, one right or wrong, but that all judged falsely concerning each other, what seemed black to one and white to the other is actually grey – a perception that could occur only through the detached eye of art. (As if a ghost sat over the affairs of men and made a true record of them) Naturally a play of this kind does not exactly present a theme or score a point, unless it be the point or theme of human misunderstanding. When you begin to arrange the action of a play to score a certain point the fidelity to life may suffer. I don’t say it always does. Things may be selected to score a point clearly without any contrivance toward that end, but I am afraid it happens rarely.
Finding a director aside from yourself who can bring this play to life exactly as if it were happening in life is going to be a problem. But that is the kind of direction it has to have. (I don’t necessarily mean “realism”: sometimes a living quality is caught better by expressionism than what is supposed to be realistic treatment.)
I remember you asked me what should an audience feel for Blanche. Certainly pity. It is a tragedy with the classic aim of producing a katharsis of pity and terror, and in order to do that Blanche must finally have the understanding and compassion of the audience. This without creating a black-dyed villain in Stanley. It is a thing (misunderstanding) not a person (Stanley) that destroys her in the end. In the end you should feel – “If only they all had known about each other!” – But there was always the paper lantern or the naked bulb!
(Incidentally, at the close of the play, I think Stanley should remove the paper lantern from the bulb – after Blanche is carried out and as he goes to resume the game.)
I have written all this out in case you were primarily troubled over my intention in the play. Please don’t regard this as “pressure”. A wire from Irene and a letter from Audrey indicate that both of them feel you have definitely withdrawn yourself from association with us and that we must find someone else. I don’t want to accept this necessity without exploring the nature and degree of the difference between us.
Scene 3, Streetcar Named Desire:
STANLEY: Stella! My baby doll’s left me! [He breaks into sobs. Then he goes to the phone and dials, still shuddering with sobs] Eunice? I want my baby! [He waits a moment; then he hangs up and dials again] Eunice! I’ll keep on ringin’ until I talk with my baby! [An indistinguishable shrill voice is heard. He hurls phone to floor. Dissonant brass and piano sounds as the rooms dim out to darkness and the outer walls appear in the night light. The “blue piano” plays for a brief interval. Finally, Stanley stumbles half-dressed out to the porch and down the wooden steps to the pavement below the building. There he throws back his head like a baying hound and bellows his wife’s name: Stella! Stella, sweetheart! Stella!”] Stell-lahhhhh!
EUNICE: [calling down from the door of her upper apartment] Quit that howling out there an’ go back to bed!
STANLEY! I want my baby down here. Stella, Stella!
EUNICE: She ain’t comin’ down so you quit! Or you’ll git th’ law on you!
EUNICE: You can’t beat on a woman an’ then call ‘er back! She won’t come! And her goin’ t’ have a baby!… You stinker! You whelp of a Polack, you! I hope they do haul you in and turn the fire hose on you, same as the last time!
STANLEY: [humbly] Eunice, I want my girl to come down with me!
EUNICE: Hah! [She slams her door]
STANLEY: [with heaven-splitting violence] STELL-LAHHHHH!
[The low-tone clarinet moans. The door upstairs opens again. Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat.]
After Kazan withdrew, Irene Selznick, Audrey Wood and Williams exchanged letters considering different directors – Josh Logan, John Huston, Tyrone Guthrie (Williams dismissed the idea immediately: “he is English. This is an American play.”) – none of them felt as right as Kazan, although Logan was the closest. It all ended up being a moot point, because negotiations reopened with Kazan. He was concerned about having Selznick mess up his process, not used to working with her as a producer; as a matter of fact, he originally said he would only direct Streetcar if Selznick were fired. Back, forth, back forth. Kazan negotiated for artistic control (he had mentioned some elements in the script he wanted to have re-worked), also billing – all the usual contract stuff. Kazan was on board. Williams was ecstatic. Wrote to Gadg again.
Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan, May 1, 1947:
Irene says you think the play needs considerable re-writing. As you never said this, or intimated it, in our talk or your letter, I don’t take this seriously, but I think it is only fair to tell you that I don’t expect to do any more important work on the script. I spent a long time on it and the present script is a distillation of many earlier trials. It certainly isn’t as good as it could be but it’s as good as I am now able to make it. – I have never been at all difficult about cuts and incidental line-changes but I’m not going to do anything to alter the basic structure – with one exception. For the last scene, where Blanche is forcibly removed from the stage – I have an alternative ending, physically quieter, which could be substituted if the present ending proves too difficult to stage. That’s about all the important change I could promise any director, and only that if the director finds the other unworkable.
If you are content with this understanding about the script – then I can just say – “Irene, I want Gadge and won’t take anyone else.” AUDREY and Bill would back me up and I think I could run interference for you all the way down the field.
Scene 1, Streetcar Named Desire:
BLANCHE: How did he take it when you said I was coming?
STELLA: Oh, Stanley doesn’t know yet.
BLANCHE: You – haven’t told him?
STELLA: He’s on the road a good deal.
BLANCHE: OH. Travels?
BLANCHE. Good. I mean – isn’t it?
STELLA: I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night…
BLANCHE: Why, Stella!
STELLA: When he’s away for a week I nearly go wild!
STELLA: And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby…
BLANCHE: I guess that is what is meant by being in love.
By May 1947, Kazan’s contract was set. Williams, after a couple of months of crazy negotiations, went to Cape Cod for some “tranquility”. He wrote to Kazan again from there.
Letter of Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan, May 1947:
Needless to say, I am eager for your ideas. I think this play has some excellent playing scenes but there are also some weak passages and some corny touches. I am determined to weed these out as much as possible before we go into rehearsal. You and I may not agree about exactly which and where these are but I am sure a lot of good will come out of consultation between us. The cloudy dreamer type which I must admit to being needs the complementary eye of the more objective and dynamic worker. I believe you are also a dreamer. There are dreamy touches in your direction which are vastly provocative, but you have a dynamism that my work needs to be translated into exciting theater. I don’t think “Pulling the punches” will benefit this show. It should be controlled but violent. I went to see “All My Sons” again. I was more impressed than ever, the way lightning was infused into all the relationships, everything charged with feeling, nothing, even the trivial exchanges, allowed to sag into passivity. Yes, I think you can try new things in my play. In that sense it might be good for you, and it will certainly be good for me. It is a working script. I think we can learn and grow with it and possibly we can make something beautiful and alive whether everyone understands it or not. People are willing to live and die without understanding exactly what life is about but they must sometimes know exactly what a play is about. I hope we can show them what it is about but since I cannot say exactly what it is about, this is just a hope. But maybe if we succeed in our first objective of making it alive on the stage, the meaning will be apparent.
On second visit to “Sons”, I decided that [Karl] Malden was right for Mitch. I hope you agree. The face is comical but the man has a dignified simplicity and he is a great actor. I also met Burt Lancaster. Was favorably impressed. He has more force and quickness than I expected from the rather plegmatic type he portrayed in The Killers. He also seemed like a man who would work well under good direction.
As that last paragraph indicates, both Williams and Kazan were turning their minds to casting. Williams discussed the casting of Blanche with Audrey Wood.
Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, mid-June 1947:
I would not recommend investment in this show to any friend until that part [Blanche] has been satisfactorily cast. By satisfactorily I mean with a really powerful dramatic actress in the part. [Margaret] Sullavan is strictly compromise on that score. She is the sort of actress that would get “excellent personal notices” but do the play no good: unless she has more on the ball than we derived from her readings. Right now [Jessica] Tandy is the only one who looks good to me and I am waiting till I see her and hear her. Could you leave a piece ($5000.) open until Blanche is cast? Then I’ll know whether or not Mother ought to invest.
Another question: will Tandy be in New York this summer? Could she come East for inspection here? If she was the Blanche we dream of, then I could dispense with the Coast trip which I dread making, as I would probably have to travel alone, and when I got there, would probably be subjected to intense pressure for script changes: the best I can do for this production is to stay in good shape for rehearsals. There isn’t much in the script that should be altered until we know the exact limitations of the Blanche selected and hear the lines spoken. I will do a lot of cutting then. The rewrite on Scene V does not read as well as original but I think it will play better and is more sympathetic for Blanche. (Makes Mitch more important to her).
Jo Mielziner signed on to design Streetcar.
Tennessee Williams to Margo Jones, early-July 1947:
Jo’s designs for Streetcar are almost the best I’ve ever seen. The back wall of the interior is translucent with a stylized panorama showing through it of the railroad yards and the city (when lighted behind). It will add immensely to the poetic quality.
Both Kazan and Williams had John Garfield in mind for the part of Stanley Kowalski. Kazan and Garfield went way back to the 30s, in the days of the Group Theatre, and Garfield was now out in Hollywood, becoming a movie star. He balked at the idea of coming back for an open-ended run which would keep him out of Los Angeles indefinitely. So although the trade papers announced that Garfield had signed on to play Stanley (this in early August), that was not actually the case. Garfield only wanted to do it for four months, a limited run, and he also wanted to be guaranteed the role in the film, should it be made into a film. Irene Selznick turned Garfield down, and so they had to, again, look for another Stanley.
Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, August 25, 1947 in the middle of the Garfield brou-haha:
The actor George Beban was flown out here from the Coast and read for me this morning. This actor has had summer stock experience and has chased a stage coach in a Grade B Western. It was his first time on a horse. He is more adventuresome than I. I don’t want to put my play under him. He gave a fair reading. He is of medium height with a rather tough and virile quality but he was monotonous, there was no gradation to his reading, no apparent humor or dexterity which comes from experience and from natural acting ability. He read one scene on his feet and his body movements were stiff and self-conscious with none of the animal grace and virility (When I say grace I mean a virile grace) which the part calls for and it made me more bitterly conscious than ever of how good Garfield would have been. I think it was a brutal experience for this actor, and I do regard actors as human beings some of them just as sensitive and capable of disappointment and suffering as I am. I don’t understand why he was put through this ordeal with no more apparent attributes than he showed this morning. Of course it was a great strategic error, if the Selznick office hoped to interest me in this actor, to accompany him with the new scripts, for when I saw that my final scene had been left out I was somewhat distracted from anything else. I am sure, however, that I gave the actor a pretty fair appraisal, notwithstanding this factor. None of us, Gadge, Irene or I, were at all impressed by the screen-tests we saw of him on the Coast.
That leaves us with Marlon Brando, of the ones that have been mentioned to date. I am very anxious to see and hear him as soon as I can. He is going to read for Gadge and if Gadge likes him I would like to have a look at him.
A couple of days after Tennessee wrote this letter, Elia Kazan took Marlon Brando up to Provincetown to meet the playwright, and to read for the role of Stanley. Brando was only 23 years old, so Williams had originally rejected even the idea of seeing him for the role at all, since in his mind Stanley was around 30. He was too young. Brando had had a couple of New York hits, had gotten some notice already – but he wasn’t a star yet. He also was a terrible “auditioner”, as many great actors are. People who were pushing Brando for the part were naturally concerned that if all they did was have Brando read from the script, he wouldn’t show up well at all. Kazan understood about the difference between audition and performance – that someone can be incredible onstage and be awful at auditions. He had seen Brando onstage and knew he had the “magnetism” that could work very well for Stanley. He sent Brando the script. Brando read it and was very impressed but also scared out of his mind.
Brando to reporter Bob Thomas:
I finally decided that it was a size too large for me, and called Gadg to tell him so. The line was busy. Had I spoken to him at that moment, I’m certain I wouldn’t have played the role. I decided to let it rest for a while, and the next day Gadg called me and said, ‘Well, what is it – yes or no?’ I gulped and said, ‘Yes.’
Kazan then sent Brando up to Provincetown to meet Tennessee Williams. It’s rather a notorious meeting, told by all the different parties who were there – Brando, Williams, etc. Williams was sitting in his beach house at Provincetown, with Pancho, his crazy hot-tempered lover, and a couple of his friends from Texas. Everyone was drunk. The electricity and the plumbing were not operational so they sat there in the gathering dark, whooping it up. This was when Brando arrived from New York. Brando strolled in, assessed the situation, walked into the bathroom, stuck his hand down the toilet to unclog it, and then fiddled with the blown fuses to get the electricity back on.
Imagine a young Brando doing this. Brando was no idiot. I’m sure he was aware that “reading from the script” as an audition was not his strongest point, and perhaps doing a little plumbing and electrical work as the playwright looked on would help his case. Or who knows, maybe it was completely unconscious and he thought, “What the hell? No lights? No toilet? What is WRONG with these people?” Whatever his motivations, when he finished with the blown fuses, he stood in the middle of the living room and started his audition. He only got 30 seconds into it before Williams stopped him. Williams told him he had the part, and then promptly gave him bus fare to go right back to New York to sign the contract. 30 seconds in the beach house living room, reading Stanley – and Williams knew. He’s my Stanley. Not a moment to lose. Here’s money, go back to New York right now, sign the contract.
Irene Selznick remembers her first meeting with this new young actor, as he signed a two-year contract in her office:
He didn’t behave like someone to whom something wonderful had just happened, nor did he try to make an impression; he was too busy assessing me. Whatever he expected, I wasn’t it. He seemed wary and at a loss how to classify me. He was wayward one moment, playful the next, volunteering that he had been expelled from school, then grinning provocatively at me. I didn’t take the bait. It was easy going after that. He sat up in his chair and turned forthright, earnest, even polite.
Scene 2, Streetcar Named Desire:
STANLEY: Have you ever heard of the Napoleonic code?
STELLA: No, Stanley, I haven’t heard of the Napoleonic code and if I have, I don’t see what it –
STANLEY: Let me enlighten you on a point or two, baby.
STANLEY: In the state of Louisiana we have the Napoleonic code according to which what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa. For instance if I had a piece of property, or you had a piece of property-
STELLA: My head is swimming!
STANLEY: All right. I’ll wait till she gets through soaking in a hot tub and then I’ll inquire if she is acquainted with the Napoleonic code. It looks to me like you’ve been swindled, baby, and when you’re swindled under the Napoleonic code I’m swindled too. And I don’t like to be swindled.
STELLA: There’s plenty of time to ask her questions later but if you do now she’ll go to pieces again. I don’t understand what happened to Belle Reve but you don’t know how ridiculous you are being when you suggest that my sister or I or anyone of our family could have perpetrated a swindle on anyone else.
STANLEY: Then where’s the money if the place was sold?
STELLA: Not sold – lost, lost!
Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, August 29, 1947:
I can’t tell you what a relief it is that we have found such a God-sent Stanley in the person of Brando. It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality or callousness of youth rather than a vicious older man. I don’t want to focus guilt or blame particularly on any one character but to have it a tragedy of misunderstandings and insensitivity to others. A new value came out of Brando’s reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard. He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans. This is a value beyond any that Garfield could have contributed, and in addition to his gifts as an actor he has great physical appeal and sensuality, at least as much as Burt Lancaster. When Brando is signed I think we will have a really remarkable 4-star cast, as exciting as any that could possibly be assembled and worth all the trouble that we have gone through. Having him instead of a Hollywood star will create a highly favorable impression as it will remove the Hollywood stigma that seemed to be attached to the production. Please use all your influence to oppose any move on the part of Irene’s office to reconsider or delay signing the boy, in case she doesn’t take to him.
Brando was signed. Kim Hunter was signed. Malden and Tandy were signed.
Tennessee Williams to Irene Selznick, Sept. 8, 1947:
As for the last scene, I will give it another work-out. I feel that my last revision on it is the best to date. It has not as much “plus-quality” in the writing as I would like. However I think it will play well. Where it lacks most is the dialogue between Stella and Eunice: there is still something too cut-and-dried in the necessary exposition between them. I will try (but can’t promise) to improve on that. It may soften too much. We mustn’t lose the effect of terror: everybody agrees about that.
Scene 11, Streetcar Named Desire:
STELLA: Everything packed?
BLANCHE: My silver toilet articles are still out.
EUNICE: [returning] They’re waiting in front of the house.
BLANCHE: They! Who’s “they”?
EUNICE: There’s a lady with him.
BLANCHE: I cannot imagine who this “lady” could be! How is she dressed?
EUNICE: Just – just a sort of a – plain-tailored outfit.
BLANCHE: Possibly she’s- [Her voice dies out nervously]
STELLA: Shall we go, Blanche?
BLANCHE: Must we go through that room?
STELLA: I will go with you.
BLANCHE: How do I look?
[Blanche moves fearfully to the portieres. Eunice draws them open for her. Blanche goes into the kitchen.]
BLANCHE: [to the men] Please don’t get up. I’m only passing through.
[She crosses quickly to outside door. Stella and Eunice follow. The poker players stand awkwardly at the table – all except Mitch, who remains seated, looking down at the table. Blanche steps out on a small porch at the side of the door. She stops short and catches her breath.]
DOCTOR: How do you do?
BLANCHE: You are not the gentleman I was expecting.
In October, 1947. Tennessee Williams wrote a letter to “Pancho”, his lover and companion.
We start rehearsals Monday. Gadge is full of vitality and optimism. Miss Tandy has arrived in town looking very pretty with her new blond hair and all the script changes have been approved and finally typed up.
Rehearsals for Streetcar began in October.
Here is Elia Kazan, a cunning canny man, who worked with every actor differently, pulling each one aside, whispering, cajoling, manipulating, on how he worked with Brando:
With other actors, I’d always say what just what I want: ‘You do this. No, I don’t like that, I want you to do it like this.’ With Marlon … it was more like, ‘Listen to this and let’s see what you do with it.’ … I’d heard about his parents, but not from him, and I never asked. I treated him with great delicacy. One reason he got to trust me – as a director – was that I respected his privacy… I was always hoping for a miracle with him, and I often got it.
Blanche Dubois, scene 1, Streetcar Named Desire:
Now, then, let me look at you. But don’t you look at me, Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I’ve bathed and rested! And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare! Come back here now! Oh, my baby! Stella! Stella for Star! I thought you would never come back to this horrible place! What am I saying? I didn’t mean to say that. I meant to be nice about it and say – Oh, what a convenient location and such – Ha-a-ha! Precious lamb! You haven’t said a word to me!
Williams wrote in his memoirs:
Kazan was one of those rare directors who wanted the playwright around at all rehearsals… Once in a while he would call me up on stage to demonstrate how I felt a certain bit should be played. I suspect he did this only to flatter me for he never had the least uncertainty in his work.
Kazan describes how he would pull Marlon aside and start to give him direction, and in the middle of him speaking, Brando would turn and walk away. Brando would pick up on the subterranean message – walk off and think about it and then try it.
Kazan on Brando:
Look, Marlon was always at arm’s length and he felt safe there, uninspected, unprobed. How much of the potential penetration was based on my insight, as opposed to stuff I picked up here and there, I don’t know… It’s my trade, though. I know where to look, where to put my hand in, what to try to pull out, what to get.
Brando’s feeling that the play was a size too big for him was intensified by the knowledge that John Garfield had been the first choice. He couldn’t get that out of his head, the anxiety that he was second-banana. He would mutter, “They should have gotten John Garfield” in the middle of rehearsals when he was struggling. His insights into the character of Stanley, however, are invaluable. He really SAW Stanley and in my opinion he shows the lie behind that whole “you have to like the character you are playing” malarkey that so many actors subscribe to. (However, Brando was a genius. So we have to factor that in. He is an unusual case). But he didn’t like Stanley. Not one bit. Marlon was strong, athletic, but not an aggressive brute like Stanley. Here he is on Stanley Kowalski:
A man without any sensitivity, without any kind of morality except his own mewling, whimpering insistence on his own way … one of those guys who work hard and have lots of flesh with nothing supple about them. They never open their fists, really. They grip a cup like an animal would wrap a paw around it. They’re so muscle-bound they can hardly talk.
That is incredibly insightful analysis.
A well-known fact now, after one week of rehearsal, Brando moved into the theatre, sleeping on a cot backstage. This was not out of bravado, but out of insecurity. He honestly didn’t feel he could do it. The only way for him to at least attempt to succeed was to never leave the part. He stopped eating, sleeping. He was late to rehearsals. Kazan, rather than being impatient for results, was tender. The other actors were at another level, almost performance-level, as Marlon was still mumbling and wandering around. This was not affectation. This was true struggle. Marlon Brando is so imitated now that it is hard to remember just how revolutionary this performance was. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Brando had great talent, yes, but part of that talent was knowing how his own talent operated, and that meant mumbling, not committing – not yet – holding back, wandering around, and trying to feel his way in. It was very frustrating for the other actors, who were more straight-line Broadway professionals.
Karl Malden describes a moment in rehearsal:
We were rehearsing the bathroom scene, the one where I come out and meet Blanche for the first time and Stanley says, ‘Hey, Mitch, come on!’ Now, as we were working on it, every day would be different. Marlon would come in before you said your line, or way after you said your line, or even before you had anything to say. The best was all wrong.
Anyway, it was just beginning to go well for me for the first time – when you think, Oh, my God, this is it – and boom, he hit me with one that just upset everything. I said, ‘Oh, shit!’ and threw something and walked offstage, up into the attic. Kazan said, ‘What the hell happened?’
‘I can’t concentrate,’ I told him. ‘I was going along beautifully and all of a sudden in comes this jarring thing. It throws me. It’s impossible.’ I was furious and explained that it had been happening regularly. He said, ‘Wait’.
Kazan made a little speech the next day for the cast, saying:
Let’s talk this out right now. Karl, you have to get used to the way Marlon works. But Marlon, you must remember that there are other people in the cast also.
Scene 6, Streetcar:
MITCH: I told my mother how nice you were, and I liked you.
BLANCHE: Were you sincere about that?
MITCH: You know I was.
BLANCHE: Why did your mother want to know my age?
MITCH: Mother is sick.
BLANCHE: I’m sorry to hear it. Badly?
MITCH: She won’t live long. Maybe just a few months.
MITCH: She worries because I’m not settled.
MITCH: She wants me to be settled down before she- [His voice is hoarse and he clears his throat twice, shuffling nervously around with his hands in his pockets.]
BLANCHE: You love her very much, don’t you?
BLANCHE: I think you have a great capacity for devotion. You will be lonely when she passes on, won’t you? [Mitch clears his throat and nods] I understand what that is.
MITCH: To be lonely?
BLANCHE: I loved someone, too, and the person I loved lost.
MITCH: Dead? [She crosses to the window and sits on the sill, looking out. She pours herself another drink.] A man?
BLANCHE: He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl …
By mid-October, the cast was ready for a run-through. Stella Adler was in attendance, as well as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy’s husband. After a couple of weeks of trying to “find” the part, Marlon suddenly gave a full-blown white-hot opening-night performance, electrifying everyone present. Nobody forgot that day when they realized they were looking at a young man who was going to be a giant giant star. It made Hume Cronyn nervous. Streetcar was about Blanche, not Stanley. If Stanley was so watchable that Blanche seems incidental to HIS journey, then wasn’t that counter to what the play actually was about? Cronyn spoke to Kazan about it. It wasn’t that Tandy was bad, it was that the CONTRAST in acting styles made Tandy look weaker as an actress, despite her already-long illustrious career.
Later, Kazan said:
Perhaps Hume meant that by contrast with Marlon, whose every word seemed not something memorized but the spontaneous expression of an intense inner experience – which is the level of work all actors try to reach – Jessie was what? Expert? Professional? Was that enough for this play? Not for Hume. Hers seemed to be a performance; Marlon was living on stage. Jessie had every moment worked out carefully, with sensitivity and intelligence, and it was all coming together, just as Williams and I had expected and wanted. Marlon, working ‘from the inside’, rode his emotion wherever it took him; his performance was full of surprises and exceeded what Williams and I had expected. A performance miracle was in the making.
Streetcar opened in Boston for a tryout run and played from November 3 to November 15, 1947. There were bubbling issues with censorship, especially in regards to the rape scene, which was causing controversy already.
During rehearsals, Kazan (in particular) was concerned (along with Hume Cronyn) that Brando’s performance would be so strong that it would tip the balance of the play. More on this later. The reviews they got in Boston were fair, with Tandy getting most of the press. The earthquake that was Marlon Brando wasn’t making itself felt yet. Tandy
Streetcar then moved to Philadelphia for another tryout (Nov. 17-29) before coming to New York for its premiere. The buzz was starting. People were taking notice. The play was sold out, and the reviews were superb. Not just of the acting, but of the play itself. There seemed a consciousness that something big was about to happen.
And then finally, New York.
Streetcar Named Desire opened on this day, in 1947.
On opening night, Tennessee Williams sent Marlon Brando a telegram, which read:
RIDE OUT BOY AND SEND IT SOLID. FROM THE GREASY POLACK YOU WILL SOME DAY ARRIVE AT THE GLOOMY DANE FOR YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT MAKES THE THEATRE A WORLD OF GREAT POSSIBILITIES.
Tennessee Williams, letter to Jay Laughlin, the following day, December 4, 1947:
Streetcar opened last night to tumultuous approval. Never witnessed such an exciting evening. So much better than New Haven you wdn’t believe it; N.H. was just a reading of the play. Much more warmth, range, intelligence, interpretation, etc. – a lot of it because of better details in direction, timing. Packed house, of the usual first-night decorations, – Cecil B’ton, Valentina, D. Parker, the Selznicks, the others and so on, – and with a slow warm-up for first act, and comments like “Well, of course, it isn’t a play,” the second act (it’s in 3 now) sent the audience zowing to mad heights, and the final one left them – and me – wilted, gasping, weak, befoozled, drained (see reviews for more words) and then an uproar of applause which went on and on. Almost no one rose from a seat till many curtains went up on whole cast, the 4 principles, then Tandy, who was greeted by a great howl of “BRavo!” from truly all over the house. Then repeat of the whole curtain schedule to Tandy again and finally ……….. 10 Wms crept on stage, after calls of Author! and took bows with Tandy. All was great, great, GREAT!
Elia Kazan in his memoir on Stanley/Brando and how it tipped the balance of the play: a very revealing anecdote:
But what had been intimated in our final rehearsals in New York was happening. The audiences adored Brando. When he derided Blanche, they responded with approving laughter. Was the play becoming the Marlon Brando Show? I didn’t bring up the problem, because I didn’t know the solution. I especially didn’t want the actors to know that I was concerned. What could I say to Brando? Be less good? Or to Jessie? Get better? …
Louis B. Mayer sought me out to congratulate me and assure me that we’d all make a fortune … He urged me to make the author do one critically important bit of rewriting to make sure that once that “awful woman” who’d come to break up that “fine young couple’s happy home” was packed off to an institution, the audience would believe that the young couple would live happily ever after. It never occurred to him that Tennessee’s primary sympathy was with Blanche, nor did I enlighten him … His misguided reaction added to my concern. I had to ask myself: Was I satisfied to have the performance belong to Marlon Brando? Was that what I’d intended? What did I intend? I looked to the author. He seemed satisfied. Only I — and perhaps Hume [Cronyn, Tandy’s husband] — knew that something was going wrong …
What astonished me was that the author wasn’t concerned about the audience’s favoring Marlon. That puzzled me because Tennessee was my final authority, the person I had to please. I still hadn’t brought up the problem, I was waiting for him to do it. I got my answer … because of something that happened in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, across the hall from my suite, where Tennessee and Pancho [Tennessee’s companion at the time] were staying. One night I heard a fearsome commotion from across the hall, curses in Spanish, threats to kill, the sound of breaking china … and a crash … As I rushed out into the corridor, Tennessee burst through his door, looking terrified, and dashed into my room. Pancho followed, but when I blocked my door, he turned to the elevator still cursing, and was gone. Tennessee slept on the twin bed in my room that night. The next morning, Pancho had not returned.
I noticed that Wiilliams wasn’t angry at Pancho, not even disapproving — in fact, when he spoke about the incident, he admired Pancho for his outburst. At breakfast, I brought up my worry about Jessie and Marlon. “She’ll get better,” Tennessee said, and then we had our only discussion about the direction of his play. “Blanche is not an angel without a flaw,” he said, “and Stanley’s not evil. I know you’re used to clearly stated themes, but this play should not be loaded one way or the other. Don’t try to simplify things.” Then he added, “I was making fun of Pancho, and he blew up.” He laughed. I remembered the letter he’d written me before we started rehearsals, remembered how, in that letter, he’d cautioned me against tipping the moral scales against Stanley, that in the interests of fidelity I must not present Stanley as a “black-dyed villain”. “What should I do?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “Don’t take sides or try to present a moral. When you begin to arrange the action to make a thematic point, the fidelity to life will suffer. Go on working as you are. Marlon is a genius, but she’s a worker and she will get better. And better.”
Marlon Brando, years later, to Truman Capote on doing Streetcar and realizing he was famous:
You can’t always be a failure. Not and survive. Van Gogh! There’s an example of what can happen when a person never receives any recognition. You stop relating: it puts you outside. But I guess success does that, too. You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was – a big success. I was so absorbed in myself, my own problems, I never looked around, took account. I used to walk in New York, miles and miles, walk in the streets late at night, and never see anything. I was never sure about acting, whether that was what I really wanted to do; I’m still not. Then, when I was in “Streetcar”, and it had been running a couple of months, one night — dimly, dimly — I began to hear this roar.
Scene 10, Streetcar:
STANLEY: Oh! So you want some roughhouse! All right, let’s have some roughhouse! [He springs toward her, overturning the table. She cries out and strikes at him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist] Tiger – tiger! Drop the bottle-top! Drop it! We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!
NY Times review:
December 4, 1947, NY Times
FIRST NIGHT AT THE THEATRE by Brooks Atkinson
Tennessee Williams has brought us a superb drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was acted at the Ethel Barrymore last evening. And Jessica Tandy gives a superb performance as a rueful heroine whose misery Mr. Williams is tenderly recording. This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting. For the acting and playwriting are perfectly blended in a limpid performance, and it is impossible to tell where Miss Tandy begins to give form and warmth to the mood Mr. Williams has created.
Like “The Glass Menagerie,” the new play is a quietly woven study of intangibles. But to this observer it shows deeper insight and represents a great step forward toward clarity. And it reveals Mr. Williams as a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is history of a gently reared Mississippi young woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit. She comes to live with her sister, who is married to a rough-and-ready mechanic and inhabits two dreary rooms in a squalid neighborhood. Blanche – for that is her name – has delusions of grandeur, talks like an intellectual snob, buoys herself up with gaudy dreams, spends most of her time primping, covers things that are dingy with things that are bright and flees reality.
To her brother-in-law she is an unforgiveable liar. But it is soon apparent to the theatregoer that in Mr. Williams’ eyes she is one of the dispossessed whose experience has unfitted her for reality; and although his attitude toward her is merciful, he does not spare her or the playgoer. For the events of “Streetcar” lead to a painful conclusion which he does not try to avoid. Although Blanche cannot face the truth, Mr. Williams does in the most imaginative and perceptive play he has written.
Since he is no literal dramatist and writes in none of the conventional forms, he presents theatre with many problems. Under Elia Kazan’s sensitive but concrete direction, the theatre solved them admirably. Jo Mielziner has provided a beautifully lighted single setting that lightly sketches the house and the neighborhood. In this shadowy environment the performance is a work of great beauty.
Miss Tandy has a remarkably long part to play. She is hardly ever off the stage, and when she is on stage she is almost constantly talking — chattering, dreaming aloud, wondering, building enchantments out of words. Miss Tandy is a trim, agile actress with a lovely voice and quick intelligence. Her performance is almost incredibly true. For it does seem almost incredible that she can convey it with so many shades and impulses that are accurate, revealing and true.
The rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic; Karl Malden as a stupid but wondering suitor; Kim Hunter as the patient though troubled sister — all act not only with color and style but with insight.
By the usual Broadway standards, “Streetcar Named Desire” is too long; not all those words are essential. But Mr. Williams is entitled to his own independence. For he has not forgotten that human beings are the basic subject of art. Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion he has spun a poignant and luminous story.
Brooks Atkinson was a longtime “watcher” of Tennessee Williams, and his reviews really showed his thoughtful understanding of what Williams was attempting. Williams loved to hear what Atkinson had to say, and they enjoyed a long private correspondence as well. On December 14, 1947, as the Streetcar uproar was in crescendo, he wrote another piece in the Times, expressing some reservations about the play. Now this is interesting: Atkinson, a discerning perceptive man, felt that the play was weakened because it arrived at no moral conclusion. The playwright takes “no sides in the conflict”. He felt that Williams was limiting himself by refusing to come down on one or the other side.
Williams jotted off a note to Atkinson in response, which gives a feeling of their open communication:
Tennessee Williams to Brooks Atkinson, Dec. 15, 1947:
At last a criticism which connects directly with the essence of what I thought was the play! I mean your Sunday article which I have just read with the deepest satisfaction of any the play’s success has given me. So many of the others, saying ‘alcoholic’, ‘nymphomaniac’, ‘prostitute’, ‘boozy’ and so forth seemed – though stirred by the play – to be completely off the track, or nearly so. I wanted to show that people are not definable in such terms but are things of multiple facets and all but endless complexity that they do not fit “any convenient label” and are seldom more than partially visible even to those who live just on the other side of “the portieres”. You have also touched on my main problem: expanding my material and my interests. I can’t answer that question. I know it and fear it and can only make more effort to extend my “feelers” beyond what I’ve felt so far. Thank you, Brooks.
Irene Selznick describes the opening night:
In those days, people stood only for the national anthem. That night was the first time I ever saw an audience get to its feet, and the first time I saw the Shuberts stay for a final curtain … round after round, curtain after curtain, until Tennessee took a bow on the stage to bravos.
Irene Selznick was the first wife of producer David O. Selznick, and they would divorce in 1948, the separation already having happened in 1947. But he sent her a letter on December 17, 1947 after reading the NY Times review of Streetcar:
Dear Irene: Just read Brooks Atkinson’s rave notice in Sunday’s New York Times … Also, I am in receipt of the most wildly enthusiastic telegram from Bob Ross, who says among other things that you have “one of the most rewarding, stimulating and exciting plays in many a season,” and “a real and distinguished hit.” … Accordingly, I feel justified in sending you most excited and delighted congratulations. It is a joy to know that all my predictions of your success are commencing to come true, and in a big way. I am sure you are well on the road to recognition as the theater’s best and most distinguished producer. Love David
In general, at least in terms of critical acclaim, Brando was not singled out. It is only retrospectively, that people seemed to understand what had happened. But actors knew. Directors knew. Insiders knew what it was they were seeing.
Here is Robert Whitehead on Brando in Streetcar:
There were no models for Brando. His relationship to the sounds and poetic reality of Williams was particularly embracing; what Tennessee wrote, both in relation to the age and Marlon’s sensibility, it all worked … That particular kind of reality existed in a way that it hadn’t ever before.
Here is Maureen Stapleton:
It goes well beyond talent. It’s male. It’s talent plus.
Joan Copeland, actress, younger sister to Arthur Miller, said:
Watching [Brando in Streetcar] was like being in the eye of the hurricane.
Blanche Dubois, scene 1, in Streetcar Named Desire:
They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!
Dakin Williams (Tennessee Williams’ brother):
Blanche is Tennessee. If he would tell you something it wouldn’t be necessarily true. And Blanche says in Streetcar, ‘I don’t tell what’s true, I tell what ought to be true.’ And so everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee.