‘Desire’, what a simple word with such a complicated meaning. Just like a streetcar, it can take you on a rollercoaster ride. It can drive you crazy, making you a mess. But, still people never fear to ‘desire’. Be it the desire of ‘love’, of ‘attention’, of ‘money’ or of ‘lust’. Just like this, A streetcar named desire, a play written by Tennessee Williams, is no less than a crazy, rollercoaster ride.
Written in 1947, the Pulitzer prize- winning drama was adapted into an Academy award-winning movie directed by Elia Kazan in 1951. Although the play had a series of Broadway stage adaptations, the film adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Liegh, is considered to be the most powerful one till date.
I read the book first then I watched its movie adaptation. So, I will try to review both the book as well as the movie.
About the author
Thomas Lanier Williams III(1911-1983), professionally known under the pen name Tennessee Williams was an American playwright. His most famous works include The Glass Menagerie(1944), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof(1955) and Sweet Bird of Youth(1959). Much of his acclaimed work has been adapted for cinema. A streetcar named desire, secured his position as one of the foremost playwrights of the 20th century. In 1979, four years prior to his death, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
Premise of the book & movie
Set in the boisterous French Quarters of New Orleans, the play follows the story of Blanche DuBois, who after losing all the family heritage(Belle Reve) to the creditors, travels from a small town of Laurel, Mississippi, to her sister’s(Stella) apartment where she lives with her husband Stanley.
- Ms. Blanche DuBois(played by Vivien Leigh)
Stella’s older sister, a woman in her thirties, homeless and penniless. But, who doesn’t hesitate on seeking the kindness of strangers. Ms. DuBois, had a tragic past. She got married at 16 to a boy she loved, who turned out to be a homosexual and as a result of which he commits suicide. So, she couldn’t ever get over his loss. Recently, she used to work as an English teacher in Laurel, but she engaged in a series of sexual escapades that resulted in her expulsion from the community. Then her last resort was to visit her sister Stella, by taking a streetcar named ‘Desire’.
Even if, she has left her past behind by doing this, but her arrogance and flamboyant living style has not left her. In the shabby old apartment of her sister, she prefers taking long hot baths, soaking herself in heavy cologne, smoking cigarettes and exploiting Stanley’s wine collection. Her sister ignores all her doings but she is an enemy in the eyes of Stanley. She is a dreamer, emotionally fragile and believer of creativity and her only desire is to leave her past behind. This makes her the most complex and a bit irritating character of the play.
Vivien Leigh has done complete justice to her character, her way of speaking, depicting a fragile attitude and a playfulness hiding her fears. Her acting won her an Academy Award.
- Mr. Stanley Kowalski(played by Marlon Brando)
Mr. Kowalski or I should call him Mr. Grumpy in real words, is the Polish husband of her sister, in his late twenties. He is handsome and charismatic but also rude and orthodox at the same time. A proper example of a sexist. The only things he loves doing is playing Poker and Bowling, apart from hating the presence of Ms. DuBois.
Right from her entry, he is doubtful about her story of losing the house to creditors and he doesn’t mind in sneaking into her trunk and throwing away her belongings here and there. A proper misogynist. Ms. DuBois correctly describes him as an animal, with an anger of Aries. She even tells Stella, to leave him as he is too common and not good for her. This certainly hurts his pride.
Marlon Brando was unknown before the screening of this movie. This film was a stepping stone towards his awe-inspiring 60 year-acting career, making him one of the most influential people in the movie dynamics in the 20th century. Even if you will hate Stanley but you will defintely love Marlon Brando for his meticulous acting. His performance was applauded so much that even today people like to compare good actors from Brando.
While, I was watching this movie, the charisma and animal magnetism that Brando showcased by speaking less and expressing more was amazing. He reminded me of Tom Hardy, whose acting skills are not far behind Brando. By speaking only few words in a 85 minute long drive in Mad Max Fury Road, he was equally charismatic and expressive as Brando. And when I googled my doubts, about whether I am right or wrong, I got this image:
I guess some people do agree with me. So, I finally got my present Marlon Brando i.e. Tom Hardy. Alright, jokes apart let’s move forward to our next character, instead of diverting from the main topic. 😛
- Mrs. Stella Kolwanski(played by Kim Hunter)
Stella or I should say Stellaaah, the way Stanley calls her is the peacemaker of the family. She is sandwiched between her refined sister and her rude husband.
She loves both of them, but prefers in believing her husband’s words over her sister’s. Even after getting hurt by him, she forgives him like a blink of an eye. She is blinded by her love for Stanley. Huh! This made me sick.
This is one of the most iconic scenes in the movie which is also on the book cover. This is when Stanley is crying out Stella’s name, after coming to his senses and realizing how he treated her in anger of losing his Poker game. And Stella who is angrily sitting in her landlady’s apartment comes running down into his arms. This is the only scene where you can see Stanley’s submissive behaviour. As he sits on his knees, apologizing for his behaviour, for 10 seconds you will stop hating Mr. Kowalski. 😛
- Mr. Harold Mitchbell( played by Karl Malden)
Mr. Mitchbell or Mitch, is a friend of Stanley. Unlike all his other friends, who are more clumsy and rough like Stanley, he is more of a Gentleman kind of person. He cares for his mother and always looks after her despite his friend’s comments. His sensitivity attracts Blanche even if he is not the man of her dreams, still she finds solace in his compliments and gestures for her.
Blanche knows he is unrefined as per taste, as he doesn’t understand her depth of creativity and art, still they both are happy in each others company. They both are lonely and need a company so Mitch wants to marry her and Blanche also sees this as a perfect opportunity to restart her life. But, this happiness is short lived, before Stanley, exposes her past to Mitch.
Even if, at the end he was angry and frustrated after knowing about the truth and that he was fooled, his behaviour is not so intense and brutal as compared to what Stanley did to her. His character adds a balance to the madness of the other characters, which was performed flawlessly by Karl Malden.
Theme & Writing Style
Tennessee Williams, wrote the play with the perfect blend of poetry and realism. The poetic dialogues of Blanche, how she lived in her own world, dreaming of being a queen and trying to look good always. The way she wanted ‘magic’ in her life so she could continue to live in her own small world away from the reality, ignoring her age, her regrets and her past. So, his writing style was able to create that atmosphere of ‘magic’.
The streetcar with the name ‘desire’ , which was shown as the bus line running in the city which Blanche takes in the beginning of the movie is the perfect example of the metaphor used by Williams.
‘Light’ is also used as a metaphor for ‘truth’ in the play. As Blanche is shown hating the light as she tells Mitch to put a paper lantern on the bulb. In a way she wants to forget about her past. Just like this there are metaphors hidden in the scenes. Also, by the example of long baths Williams showcased, mental illness that how much she wanted to clean herself so that she could get rid of her dirty past
Williams had a difficult personal life being a homosexual and facing family tensions, his personal life was always the centre stage behind his plays. Just like the character of Blanche, which was loosely inspired from his own sister who had a mental breakdown after lobotomy and about Blanche’s marriage, similarly Stanley’s character was inspired from his father who loved to gamble and drink. Williams wrote about homosexuality, mental breakdown, identity crisis and alcoholism which was the central theme of most of his plays. He knew the pain of desires and showed it beautifully by creating such an intense plot.
I read the book, I liked it, but I was not in the mood of praising it. But, after seeing the movie, I realized the intensity of each and every scene and why it is one of the most finest plays. I hate to say this, but I think the movie was better than the book. In movie the dialogues were short and all the superfluous details was cut short. The director Kazan, clearly understood the crowd. The extra scenes of bowling and casino was added to add more dimensions to play. The tight shots, showing the right intensity. The Polka music blended perfectly with the intensity of the scenes.
And of course, the amazing star cast, that performed flawlessly because of which all four of them were nominated for Academy Awards and three of them except Brando even won it. Somewhere down the line, the success of the movie and the beautiful visual elements that it captured adds to the success of Tennessee Williams, of becoming one of the most brilliant playwrights of the century.
Although, the play and the movie had a different ending sequence, both of them conveyed similar message and created same mess. I liked the movie ending more than the play. Do watch the movie and read the book, to know which one was better, as this important play should not be missed by anyone. ☺