December 3, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Today marks the anniversary of the opening night, when on December 3, 1947, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. To cite this as “a landmark” doesn’t begin to describe the shock and awe it presented audiences in its original Broadway production, nor how the power of its prose and poetry rendered by the raw emotional truth of its acting ensemble brought the American theatre to new heights. If all that sounds like hyperbole, no one has come along to swipe that judgment to the side, even with the benefit of seventy years hindsight.
Yes, it has been seventy years since Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski first shouted “Stella!” and Jessica Tandy spoke those famous last words as Blanche DuBois to Richard Garrick, in his role as a kindly unnamed Doctor, who shows up at the play’s conclusion: “Whoever you are — I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” But Streetcar has always been more about the sum of its parts that its famous lines (and line readings). The quartet of vibrant roles that make up the play’s leading parts have had actors consistently search for new meanings over the past eight decades. On New York stages alone, there have been the Blanche’s of Uta Hagen (Miss Tandy’s Broadway successor), Tallulah Bankhead, Rosemary Harris, Lois Nettleton, Blythe Danner, Jessica Lange, Natasha Richardson, Nicole Ari Parker and Cate Blanchett. Around the world, she has been portrayed by Rachel Weisz, Gillian Anderson and Isabelle Huppert. Not to mention Vivien Leigh in both the West End premiere in 1949 (directed by her then-husband Laurence Olivier), and the 1951 film version, directed by Elia Kazan, who repeated his staging of the original production.
And there will always be more to come. Streetcar will be performed for as long as there are stages on which to play it. And not only theatres, but opera houses. In 1998, Andre Previn composed a score, with a libretto by Philip Littell, that transformed Williams’s play into an opera. Renée Fleming created this singing Blanche, and though generally received good reviews for her performance, the reception to Streetcar as an opera is still a mixed bag, even after twenty years of subsequent productions. The play was made into two television films, one in 1984 with Ann-Margret and Treat Williams, and in 1995 with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin, in a re-thought version of a Broadway revival they had starred in three years earlier.
Over the years, many have succeeded in reinterpreting Blanche, but it’s been tremendously difficult for anyone to reinvent the Stanley of Marlon Brando. His footprints have left indelible marks, mainly because he got to repeat his overwhelmingly physical performance in the 1951 film, which was the first time movie audiences could bask in his powerful physicality (although he starred in Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, one year prior to Streetcar, he was in a wheelchair for that entire film). Brando was born to the role, even though it was first intended for John Garfield, a huge film star at the time. Both he and Kazan were original members of the famed Group Theatre, and Garfield was the choice of the creative team, including the playwright and the show’s producer, Irene Mayer Selznick. But his contractual demands forced them to look at other actors (not the first time that’s happened), and it was Kazan’s own feeling that Brando, then twenty-three (!), who having already proven himself in minor theatre roles as well as in acting classes at the Actors Studio, was the guy for Stanley.
In what is an off-told (yet true story), Kazan sent Brando to see Tennessee Williams at his home in Cape Cod, hoping the playwright would read him and approve the choice. Lending Brando $20 for a train ticket, the actor took Kazan’s money, but used it for food instead. He hitchhiked to Williams’s cottage, and when he got there, was met with an emergency in progress: an overflowing toilet. Brando fixed it, but that was “not what determined me to give him the part,” Williams later said.
When Streetcar came along for Jessica Tandy, the British-born actress was then-thirty-eight-years-old with extensive credits, if little fame to show for it. She began her career in the West End auspiciously as Ophelia opposite John Gielgud’s Hamlet, then later, Katherine to Laurence Oliver’s Henry V. Such successes were not to be when she came to America and to Broadway, where the first eight plays she appeared in prior to Streetcar ran no longer than a single month each. A few years in Hollywood films (the best one being The Seventh Cross alongside her husband Hume Cronyn), were for the most part, undistinguished. But with Streetcar, Tandy moved to the forefront of America’s stage actresses, eventually receiving three Tony Awards as Best Actress (one of which was for her Blanche) before retiring in 1986 with The Petition at the age of seventy-seven. Of course, she continued to work in film, winning an unexpected Academy Award at age eighty for Driving Miss Daisy, still the oldest living actress to receive that honor.
Karl Malden and Kim Hunter were the original Mitch and Stella on that opening night seventy years ago. Both repeated their roles in the film version, and were each bestowed with Academy Awards for their beautifully-etched performances. I’ve spoken to a number of people who saw Streetcar in its first incarnation and to a person, all react as if they had seen it yesterday. When I interviewed the late Mike Nichols, he said, “It was deeply shocking, because you’d never seen — you suddenly thought, ‘Oh! You can live on stage? I didn’t know that!’ And there’s no missing it. I mean, I think I was fifteen or fourteen, and it was absolutely clear that it was a new idea, or a new ability.”
My friend, the ninety-four-year-old James Karen (still a working actor, mind you), was Karl Malden’s understudy in the original Streetcar. These are some of his memories from a 2015 conversation we had: “You have no idea how funny the show was. People equate it with a tragedy, but I am telling you, audiences howled at the goings-on, and not inappropriately. Kazan worked so hard at creating real life up on that stage so that everything that flowed from it was true to the moment. I was a part of some pretty terrific plays, the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for example [Karen understudied both George and Nick]. But Streetcar was a different animal entirely. A once-in-a-lifetime production.”
Happy 70th. And God bless Tennessee Williams for his gift to world theatre.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.