70 years ago, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ took Broadway by storm
Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans-set drama “A Streetcar Named Desire” made its Broadway debut on Dec. 3, 1947, and hit the theater world like a bolt of lightning. The play, which would win Williams his first Pulitzer Prize, was acclaimed for its realism and made a star out of Marlon Brando, who brought raw sexuality and a new, naturalistic style of acting to the role of Stanley Kowalski. It ran for 855 performances and was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie that has become an American cinema classic.
“Streetcar” is Williams’ most famous play and has been performed on stages and in movies and television productions around the world, with leading ladies as varied as Jessica Tandy (the original Blanche DuBois), Uta Hagen, Jessica Lange, Cate Blanchett and Ann-Margret. Each year, the New Orleans literary festival bearing Tennessee Williams’ name concludes with a shouting contest at the Pontalba Apartments on Jackson Square in which leather-lunged participants duplicate Brando’s famous, anguished cry to his wife: “Stelllllllaaaaaaa!”
- Williams wrote much of “Streetcar” in his apartment at 632 St. Peter St., where he could hear the Desire streetcar clatter past. By 1951, when director Elia Kazan’s film crew came to town to shoot exteriors for the original movie adaptation, a bus had replaced the streetcar. Consequently, the crew had to hire a streetcar to bear the name of the now-legendary line.
- Williams wrote the part of Blanche DuBois for Tallulah Bankhead. Although Bankhead didn’t portray Williams’ most famous heroine on Broadway or in the movie, she did play Blanche in a 1956 New York revival.
- Three actors in the 1951 movie version — Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden — won Oscars for their performances, a feat that only one other movie, “Network” (1976), has duplicated.
- In 1999, Hunter, the original Stella, spoke during the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and, on the last day, stood on the Pontalba balcony as a bit of added inspiration for those competing in the annual Stella shouting contest.
- Williams’ writing could be lyrical, but his geography could be a little iffy. For instance, Stella Kowalski takes her sister, Blanche DuBois, to Galatoire’s for dinner, and the impression is that they’re going to walk to the Bourbon Street restaurant from the Kowalski home on Elysian Fields Avenue. That would be slightly more than a mile each way — much more than the delicate Blanche could have been expected to tolerate, especially on a warm night.
In addition to being masterfully written, “Streetcar” is revered locally for its use of real places as well as characters who act — and sound — like actual New Orleanians. As a result, there’s no escaping the pervasive influence of “Streetcar” in the city Williams called his spiritual home. Tour guides point out his residences in the French Quarter, including the flat where he lived while writing his most famous play, and a streetcar bearing the Desire name used to stand behind the Old U.S. Mint at the edge of the French Quarter. When he wrote “Streetcar,” Williams was trying to capture a sense of the city. In the years since, his play has done something more: It has actually become part of the city.