A Streetcar Named Desire | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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A Streetcar Named Desire | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle who clashes with her brutish brother-in-law. Though it shocked America with its frank and brutal representation of sexuality and violence, it opened on Broadway in 1947 to rave reviews. It is still regarded as one of the best plays of the 20th century and helped Williams become the most widely acclaimed American playwright of his time.

A Streetcar Named Desire won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, kick-started the career of Marlon Brando, inspired a movie adaptation that won an Academy Award, and holds a place on the Library of Congress's list of "Books That Shaped America." The play has been adapted countless times for film, opera, ballet, television, and, of course, theater.

1. The play's title, A Streetcar Named Desire, was inspired by a real streetcar line in New Orleans.

In the play Blanche famously says, "They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!" The Desire streetcar line ran from 1920 to 1948 in New Orleans and gained widespread acclaim from its mention in Williams's play. In 1948 the Desire streetcar line was converted to a bus route, much to the dismay of many residents who enjoyed the newfound publicity.

2. In addition to the film adaptation, Marlon Brando was in the original Broadway performance of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Marlon Brando, who was 23 and virtually unknown at the time, was initially rejected for the role of Stanley Kowalski because "he was considered too young and too handsome." Fortunately for Brando, his agent managed to get him a second audition—this time to read for Tennessee Williams himself. Williams thought Brando was perfect for the part.

3. The audience applauded for half an hour after the debut performance of A Streetcar Named Desire ended.

A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. After a moment of "stunned silence," the audience clapped for 30 minutes straight. Reviewers were similarly enthralled. The New York Times wrote, "Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion [Williams] has spun a poignant and luminous story."

4. Marlon Brando broke his nose during a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire.

During a break from one performance, Brando was boxing with a stagehand in the theater's basement when a mishap led to a badly broken nose. He returned to the stage with a bloody nose and his co-star, Jessica Tandy, improvised the line "You bloody fool," playing it as if his character had been in a street fight. His broken nose got Brando two weeks off work—"Not that I was sorry," said Brando. "Streetcar had been running about a year and I was sick of it."

5. The film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire broke records at the Academy Awards.

Most of the original Broadway cast stayed on for the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie remained mostly faithful to the play and achieved just as much acclaim, receiving nominations for 12 Academy Awards and winning four. In fact, it was nominated for all four acting Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress) and was the first movie to win three of them. Marlon Brando, nominated for Best Actor for his now classic portrayal of Stanley Kowalski, lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

6. References to Allan Grey's sexual orientation were removed from the 1951 film of A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Motion Picture Production Code was a set of moral guidelines that most U.S. movies were required to adhere to from 1930 to 1968. In a 1950 letter to Warner Brothers, the Motion Picture Association of America cited three ways the script for A Streetcar Named Desire violated the Production Code, one of them being "an inference of sex perversion...[with] reference to the character of Blanche's young husband, Allan Grey, [as] there seems little doubt that this young man was a homosexual."

7. Williams wanted Meryl Streep to play Blanche in another film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.

After seeing Streep star in his play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Williams liked her performance so much that he wanted her to play Blanche in a new film version of Streetcar. She was already committed to another project, and the Streetcar production was postponed for several years. It was eventually realized as a 1984 television movie starring Ann-Margret.

8. Williams changed his birth year to qualify for a writing contest.

As a young man, Tennessee Williams—born Thomas Lanier Williams—struggled to get his writing career off the ground. Between ages 17 and 27, he had only two stories published, and it was not for lack of trying. He was 28 when he came across a writing contest for writers under 25; he adjusted his birth date by three years and changed his name to Tennessee so he could enter. He didn't win, but the name stuck.

9. Williams criticized a famous actress in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire as "the worst" Blanche he'd ever seen.

Williams wrote the role of Blanche for the actress Tallulah Bankhead, but she turned it down. Later, she played Blanche in the 1957 revival, and Williams called her performance the worst he'd ever seen. She "nodded in sad acquiescence." Williams gave her some constructive criticism, however, and a few weeks later watched her perform again. Afterward, in a letter to the New York Times, he wrote: "I shed tears almost all the way through and...when the play was finished I rushed up to her and fell to my knees at her feet."

10. A Streetcar Named Desire was featured in a Simpsons episode called "A Streetcar Named Marge."

In a 1992 Simpsons episode, Marge Simpson and Ned Flanders play Blanche and Stanley, respectively, in a community theater adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. A reviewer wrote that the episode is "just about perfect, a stunningly assured and consistently hilarious marriage of scathing pop-culture and domestic satire and emotion."

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