Opinionated, revealing, constantly entertaining account of the birth and growth of Tennessee Williams’s most famous play.
In the form we now know it, A Streetcar Named Desire, suggests Staggs (Close Up on Sunset Boulevard, 2002), blends Katherine Anne Porteresque Southern gothic, Samuel Beckettian nihilism and Cole Porterish camp. In a feverish moment, he deems it “a root canal on the soul,” but elsewhere lauds its sexual-comedic moments. Staggs neatly deconstructs the evolution of the genre-hopping play, observing its manic center’s transformation from Blanche Shannon of Chicago to Blanche DuBois of New Orleans, and charting the many changes Williams made to the script over a decade as a result not only of second and third thoughts but also, later, of audience reactions, director Elia Kazan’s suggestions and the meddling of censors and studio executives. The play came to life when, in 1947, a scarcely known actor named Marlon Brando was signed for the part of Stanley Kowalski (who, in earlier drafts of the play, had been first Irish, then Italian). Brando’s performances gave birth to method acting, whose theory, Staggs writes, had been well established but whose practice seems mostly to have consisted of other actors’ imitating Brando’s halting, hulking presentation. Staggs is less enthusiastic about the Blanche of the two-year New York theatrical run, Jessica Tandy, second-guessing Kazan six decades after the fact. (Williams, he writes, wanted Greta Garbo for the role.) Staggs then follows the twists and turns the play took to get to the screen, now with the appropriately disturbed Vivien Leigh as Blanche; it’s an unhappy story, even though the film made Academy Award history: “It was . . . the first time that three actors from the same film won Oscars.” Adds Staggs, after reconstructing a dozen scenes that the censors slashed, that story is also made a little happier by the fact that a director’s cut is now available, giving audiences a chance to get a better sense of Williams’s and Kazan’s intentions—to say nothing of the young Brando’s power.
Everything you ever wanted to know about a masterpiece.