They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields.
We went, three of us, last night to see A Streetcar Named Desire at the Liverpool Playhouse. It’s a magnificent production of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play that has come to be regarded as a landmark of 20th century theatre. Tender yet powered by violent rage and desperation, it’s a play that must have been deeply shocking to large sections of its audience back in 1947. Indeed, with alcoholism, sex, suicide, prostitution, class and ethnic hostilities, rape, madness and what is euphemistically referred to as ‘degeneracy’, there is plenty to chew on: when it came to London in 1949 the critic Harold Hobson raged against the ‘excessively virtuous’ playgoers who reacted to the play ‘with sheer, half-witted moral horror’. No other London production, he declared, had met with such ‘venomous opposition’ since Ibsen. Exactly: it’s in that league, Williams’ scrutiny of repressed emotions and family trauma is on a par with that of the Scandinavian master dramatist.
The Playhouse production, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, grabs you by the throat from the very start, and maintains its grip for the entire three hours of the drama. Superb acting by the entire cast and in particular an outstanding performance from Amanda Drew as the tragic Blanche DuBois account for this, along with excellent set design, lighting and sound.
The set is all expressionistic slants and diagonals, rotating between the exterior of Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s apartment with its fire escape lit by the neon lights of the New Orleans French Quarter and its interior: two bare rooms and, somewhere off stage, a bathroom, crucial to the plot. There was a palpable sense of fraught emotions building like a pressure cooker in this confined and claustrophobic space. Both lighting and sound contributed to the atmosphere of sweaty tension, with haunting jazz and the distant rumble and sounding bell of the streetcar.
There’s no doubt that the performance is dominated by Amanda Drew’s superb performance as the damaged, fragile Blanche, lurching from the affectations of the elevated social class she has fallen from, flashes of a predatory, sexual confidence, and a haunted desolation. It’s no accident that she compulsively changes clothes in scene after scene. But Leanne Best as Stella Kowalski and Sam Troughton as her husband Stanley give brilliant performances, too. Sam Troughton struts the stage, chest puffed out with macho menace, though daughter felt that he lacked the presence – and physique – of Marlon Brando in the film version. A view shared by Dominic Cavendish in his review of the production in The Telegraph:
Now Troughton holds the stage well at the Liverpool Playhouse – shoulders back, chest out, hard stares, a stiff, deliberate way with his neck – but did I believe that he is, as his infatuated wife Stella has it, “a different species”? Not really. No one’s expecting Marlon Brando, who created the role in the original production of Streetcar in 1947, but something in the audience needs to swoon or stir a little at the sight of this work-begrimed, poker-playing Polack. We need to understand why Stella would accept such a comedown in life, such rough New Orleans circumstances, and moreover why her too-delicate sister Blanche DuBois, in flight from her troubles and throwing herself on their hospitality, might hold him in ambiguous contempt.
As the tragedy unfolds, it is Blanche who holds centre stage: the fragile, vulnerable victim, scarred by the trauma of discovering that her young husband has been unfaithful to her with another man, and then his subsequent horrific suicide. Like a bird with a broken wing, Blanche tries again and again to find love and beauty, but only succeeds in piling lie on a lie to create a world of illusion. In the final moments of the play, as she is shepherded away to the asylum, we survey the wreckage of her life – and the disaster she has brought to the lives of the others – Stella with her new-born baby, Stanley, and the unfortunate Mitch, whose hopes for an end to loneliness have, like Blanche’s turned to dust. Each of these characters is undone by Blanche’s departure: Mitch stares vacantly into what was once her bedroom, Stella clutches her baby, Stanley embraces Stella in the vain hope of undoing the damage.
A Streetcar Named Desire had its premiere on the New York stage three years after The Glass Menagerie had won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, catapulting Williams into the upper echelon of American playwrights. A Streetcar Named Desire cemented Williams’s reputation, gathering another Drama Critics’ Circle Award as well as a Pulitzer Prize.
Much of the pathos found in Tennessee Williams’ drama was mined from the playwright’s own life. Alcoholism, depression, thwarted desire, loneliness, and insanity were all part of Williams’s world. His most memorable characters (and it’s notable, watching Streetcar, how many of them are dream roles for female actors), contain recognisable elements of their author, his mother Edwina, or his sister Rose. Williams’ mother was a Mississippi clergyman’s daughter prone to hysterical attacks. In 1918, Tennessee’s family had moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, marking the start of the family’s deterioration. His father’s drinking increased, the family moved sixteen times in ten years, and the young Williams, shy and fragile, was ostracised and taunted at school. During these years, he and his sister Rose were very close. Later, after Williams had left home, Rose, who had begun suffering from mental illness, was subjected to a lobotomy, an event that was traumatic for Williams, and left his sister in a mental home for the rest of her life. The vulgar, irresponsible male characters in Williams’ dramas (such as Stanley Kowalski) are said to be modelled on Williams’ own father and youths who tormented him during his childhood.
Symbols play an important part in the play. There’s a scene in which Mitch offers Blanche a cigarette from his case, which bears an inscription that Blanche immediately recognises as coming from one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, published in 1850. It’s stands as a symbol of Blanche’s undying love for her dead young husband. The poem, written to Barrett Browning’s husband (fellow poet Robert Browning), is probably her most famous work:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Blanche: What you are talking about is desire – just brutal Desire. The name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.
Stella: Haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar?
Blanche: It brought me here. Where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be.
It’s a mark of the quality of Williams’ writing that we end up caring deeply for a woman who is manipulative, snobbish, hypocritical, trapped in her own illusions. It’s close to the end of the play when she speaks its most famous line:
Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
These words, spoken by Blanche to the doctor who comes to take her to the mental hospital, form her final statement in the play. It seems that she perceives the doctor to be the chivalrous Shep Huntleigh, the rescuer for whom she has been waiting since she arrived in New Orleans. But it’s illusory: not only is this man not her saviour, but Blanche’s dependence on ‘the kindness of strangers’ rather than on herself is the explanation for her present predicament. Strangers have given her money for sex, while the people of her hometown, and now strangers like Stanley and Mitch have denied her their sympathy. Blanche’s final remark is a sign of her total detachment from reality and her inclination to see in life only what she wants to see.
Finally, just a couple of glances back to Marlon Brando’s on screen reprise of the role he played in the play’s first New York performance. In this scene, Brando as Stanley meets Blanche (played by Vivien Leigh) for the first time:
In contrast, here they are busy tearing each other apart towards the end: ‘Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on. Now what kind of a queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes?’