North & South, Miller & Williams

Within a few months of the end of World War Two, America already had its two greatest playwrights of the second half of the century and they were as strongly contrasted as the plays they wrote: Arthur Miller, Ibsenite, rigorous, the keeper and rabbi of America's moral conscience, and Tennessee Williams, the Deep Southern boy who was all emotion and sloppy heart where Miller was the chilly intellectual head.

Thomas Lanier Williams (1911-1983) was born in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of a travelling shoe salesman and his wife, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. After what he called "a lonely and miserable" childhood in St Louis, where he was bullied at school for his short stature and delicate constitution, he set out to be a writer and, by the time he was taken out of the University of Missouri in 1932 when the family money ran out, he had already published a number of short stories.

Five years later, he was at the University of Iowa, supported by his grandparents, studying to be a playwright with a professor who regularly marked his work down. The following year, in 1938, hearing that a lobotomy had been performed on his beloved but troubled sister Rose, he cut off all connection with his family and went to New York, where in 1940 he won a $100 prize for drama and aroused the interest of the legendary agent, Audrey Wood.

Tragedy Out of Cartoon

The title A Streetcar Named Desire refers to a now long-defunct tramline in New Orleans, where three of the stops on the route were named 'Cemeteries', 'Elysian Fields' and, finally, a housing estate called 'Desire'. Blanche DuBois, the central figure of the drama, makes that journey metaphorically as well as literally when, destitute, she lands on her earthier younger sister, Stella, happily and recently married to a highly sexual rough diamond called Stanley Kowalski and living with him in the close quarters of the 'Desire' tenements. Blanche's aristocratic, fragile and cultured spirit collapses under the violent impact of a brother-in-law who rapes both her body and her mind.

Although Streetcar was to win Williams the Pulitzer and provide career-defining roles for Jessica Tandy (the first Broadway Blanche), Vivien Leigh (in London and on film) and Marlon Brando (Stanley on Broadway and film), it did not open to universally good reviews. George Jean Nathan felt that "Mr Williams seems to labour under the misapprehension that theatrical sensationalism and dramatic truth are much the same thing", while Howard Barnes complained that "at the end, Blanche goes off like a frightened child ... her world ends not with a bang but with a whimper. We leave the play depressed, not exalted as after tragic surge. The play deals with sexual abnormality, harlotry, perversion, venality, rape and lunacy ... while unpleasant, it is never disgusting, yet never rises to be enlightening. Williams has insisted on making a tragedy out of a cartoon."

Ahead of Its Time

In many ways, Streetcar was ahead of its time, in the way it really introduced the contemporary notion of psychological drama. We experience Blanche's solitary agony and her terrible descent into madness as though we are seeing into her mind, just as that mind fragments. For those who always had to depend, like Blanche, "upon the kindness of strangers", the play holds a terrible truth and it could be argued that in her own subsequent collapse into a kind of madness, Vivien Leigh was, for the whole of the rest of her life, to live out Blanche's nightmares.

On stage and screen, the play made a star of Marlon Brando and effectively therefore introduced the style of Method acting which he came to embody. Although he and Vivien were to leave their fingerprints all over Streetcar for many years to come, since their time, it has been possible to re-consider the play as something more than just the clash of two cultures.

Streetcar defines the modern American theatre, and its ultimate message about the fragility of the blasted soul was never to be overtaken. The wrought-iron screens of the Tennessee Williams South may always have seemed dreadfully overwrought but, carrying on from Eugene O'Neill, he became the theatrical voice of the dispossessed and the mentally unstable.

If Arthur Miller speaks for the American city, the educated and Northern morals of the urban dwellers, then Tennessee Williams speaks for the fragility of the overheated swamp country of the Deep South, with its sexual violence, its traditional divisions and its political ambiguities. To that extent it could even be argued that a hundred years later, Williams for the South and Miller for the North were still fighting the Civil War.


WHAT ELSE HAPPENED IN THEATRE IN 1947?

Births: Glenn Close (American stage and screen actress - and the National's current Blanche Dubois), David Hare (British playwright), Betty Buckley (Broadway star), David Mamet (American playwright).

Deaths: James Agate (British theatre critic), Bert Kalmar (American composer and singer), FJ McCormick (Irish actor, one of the founding players of Dublin's Abbey Theatre), Grace Moore (opera star).

Notable Premieres:

  • Charles Laughton directs and stars Brecht's The Life of Galileo
  • Finian's Rainbow, Yip Harburg's satirical musical fantasy, triumphs on Broadway but flops in the West End
  • Brigadoon, Lerner and Loewe's first hit musical, runs two years in New York and London
  • Kurt Weill's musical Street Scene, based on the 1929 play by Elmer Rice opens on Broadway
  • Robert Morley and Peggy Ashcroft open two-year run of Morley's own play, Edward, My Son
  • AE Matthews opens in The Chiltern Hundreds, the first of many long-running West End comedies by William Douglas Home
  • Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist No Exit opens on Broadway


    The above is extracted from A Century of Theatre by Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon, published by Oberon Books (priced £19.99). For more information or to order a copy, visit the Oberon website.

    You can also ENTER TO WIN a copy through Whatsonstage.com by clicking here. Competition ends 30 November 2002.


    Trevor Nunn's National Theatre revival of A Streetcar Named Desire opens at the NT Lyttelton on 8 October 2002 (previews from 28 September), starring Glenn Close as Blanche Dubois and Iain Glen as Stanley Kowalski.