Monday, 6 May 2013

A Streetcar Named Desire: Reflection

Salve! It's been a while, but here's a recent reflection comparing Tennessee William's extraordinary play to the 1952 film version.  

                                                                    All That Williams Injected
            Psychotic schizophrenia, desperate loneliness, and animal desire: Tennessee William's play A Streetcar Named Desire has graced, haunted, and occupied a special place in American literature and theatrical drama since 1947.  Exhibiting eccentric extremes while emphasizing emphatic characters and their dire straits, the play has been adapted for various film productions because of its popularity and the fact that it displays various desperate themes with colorful characters.  The best film production of William's play was released in 1951 and starred Vivien Leigh as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Marlon Brando as Stanley (Warner Bros., 1951). But does it do the play justice simply because it starred great actors of the era? Although only the ending was altered, giving the story an entirely different twist, the Warner Brothers film adaption (directed by Elia Kazan) is an artistic production that enhances William's near psychological tragedy.
            During the summer of 2010, I remember driving home from church one evening using the route that passed by the Guthrie Theater. At that point in time, A Streetcar Named Desire was being advertised, and I vividly recall being disgusted at the title, thinking that if I were assigned or required to read it, I would, but I was determined, with all stubbornness, to avoid it.  Nearly three years later, I sat by my fireplace on the most dreary of rainy, winter afternoons, with an assignment before me, an assignment to read of this story, that of A Streetcar Named Desire. However, now I was curious, and as I delved into the lives of these people I had never wanted to meet, I was surprised that I liked them. Concerning the play, I realized I appreciated William's writing and his talented ability to capture realistic and likeable characters, however crazy, annoying, base, or psychotic they may have been. After I read and appreciated the play in this sense, I was eager to see the film adaption and was equally pleased, as each actor and actress embodied all Williams injected into his powerful piece.
            The tragic story, tracing events across months, in which a troubled and psychotic Blanche DuBois stays with her sister Stella and her husband, Stanley Kowalski, was not a film without emotional draw.  When reading literature, I tend to try and keep myself detached from certain stories, but I liked this play for many reasons, and I do admit to letting myself become quite involved. On that rainy day, the likeable characters and tragically scripted story evoked a solitary tear as I read of Blanche's fate. I realized how fragile life was at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, and as Stanley crooned, trying to comfort Stella in the loss of her sister, I felt the need to be reassured. Each character was dealing with their own problems, but I was involved in all of it.
            Not surprisingly, Tennessee William's play was considered taboo in relation to different aspects, especially the references to sexuality as well as homosexuality.  Hollywood was directed by patrons to censor out most of these references. In the play, Blanche recalls finding her young husband to be homosexual, and when she confronted him, he despaired and committed suicide. The film contains no reference to Allen (her late husband's) sexual identity when Blanche colloquies with Mitch (Karl Malden), as they were required to gloss over the fact marked so clearly in the play.  Another section censored includes Blanche's advances on an adolescent newspaper boy. Her overtures in the play were quite frightening. Like dust smothering a plant in spring, her intentions were nonsensical, out of place, and essentially ugly, but the producers of the film were very adamant to follow requirements and make Blanche's out of decorum actions seem not that terrible, therefore, they diluted the concentrated content.  The last piece censored was Blanche's rape by Stanley.  Out of three options, the producers decided, that in order to please their audience, they would allow the unfortunate circumstance to happen, but Stanley would be punished for his actions, which caused the film to end in the opposite direction of the play. Instead of being comforted by Stanley on the loss of her sister to the sanatorium, as in the play, Stella ambles outside with her baby and viciously declares that she will never return to Stanley, adding to the theme of desperation.
            Kazan's film adaption closely follows the themes of William's play, including those of film fantasy versus reality as well as despair versus delight.  In both film and play, the protagonist, Blanche DuBois, is in conflict throughout, as she cannot escape the vicious cycle of attempting to blanket, smother, and even suffocate her past and present reality with fantasy. These themes are aligned in every possible way, but because the ending of the film was changed, it alters the feeling that everything will turn out alright. Stanley tried to reassure Stella, in both the play and film stating everything would “be alright...the way that it was” (NAAL 139). However, the film ends with desperation, not desire, and Stella vows not to return, despite Stanley's loud and desperate calls for his wife.
            Closely following William's play, the 1951 film adaption stars many excellent actors who embody the concentrated themes in the near psychological tragedy A Streetcar Named Desire.  I was pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised in that I found the play to be enjoyable and slightly terrible simultaneously. While the film adaption does A Streetcar Named Desire justice as well as intensifying it in multiple ways, the play kept my attention, leaving my imagination to fill in details of how fragile life is. Impacting emotion, whether characteristic or horrific, the details censored out retained the clarity, leaving imagination to reign yet again. Despite the altered ending, the film enhances a play I judged to be deplorable so many years ago. Instead, Elia Kazan's 1951 production of A Streetcar Named Desire is a masterfully crafted piece of drama that examines the fantastic and the realistic, the desperate and the desiderata: All that Williams injected.

Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

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