A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway on this day in 1947, with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois. Brando was a twenty-three-year-old unknown and, said Tandy, “an impossible, psychopathic bastard” in rehearsal, but watching his performance, said another actor, was “like being in the eye of the hurricane.” “In those days,” producer Irene Selznick later wrote, “people only stood for the national anthem. That night was the first time I ever saw an audience get to its feet.” They stayed on their feet for a full half hour, “round after round, curtain after curtain, until Tennessee took a bow on stage to bravos.” The production ran for over two years, and the play won Williams the first of two Pulitzer Prizes.
One of the most famous titles in American drama was called The Moth in some early drafts. When Blanche Dubois arrives at Stella’s tenement, she is in white down to her gloves and pearls, and behaving in a flittery manner meant, say the stage directions, “to suggest a moth.” More often the early drafts are titled The Poker Night. Williams’s father loved poker and drinking and his life at the International Shoe Company — but not, Williams felt, his doubly strange, gay writer son. Williams spent three misfit years at International Shoe — during which time he became friends with Stanley Kowalski, fellow worker and namesake of the character who plays flame to Blanche — and then he left home and Missouri for New Orleans and “Tennessee.” Williams said that there was only one theme in all his work, “the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual.” By “society” he meant people like Stanley Kowalski and his father; by “sensitive individual” he meant people like Blanche and himself.
The biographers note other parallels between Blanche Dubois and Tennessee Williams. Despite homes in New Orleans and Key West, Williams was a compulsive hotel-room nomad, a man unable to find any relationship that would last or to keep away from dangerous, rough-trade encounters. He liked to believe and quote Blanche’s exit line, that she had “always relied on the kindness of strangers,” but in his case strangers were pretty much all he had. “My greatest affliction,” he wrote near the end of his life, is “a loneliness that follows me like a shadow.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.