Two production reviews of A Streetcar Named Desire will be assessed, including a review of a “tryout” performance prior to its Broadway debut, and one review of its Broadway debut. Information gleaned from reviews about the methods used to stage these productions as well as strengths and weaknesses of each production will be articulated. This information will then be compiled analyzed in order to determine the best approach for staging A Streetcar Named Desire in the present day.
One of the most informative reviews of a production of A Streetcar Named Desire prior to its Broadway premiere was a review by R.E.P Sensenderfer of the November 18, 1947 production at the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia. This review lauds playwright Tennessee Williams’ sense compassion for his characters, particularly the complex protagonist, Blanche DuBois. Sensenderfer also notes that Williams has a unique ability to “write how characters speak,” thus further contributing to the realism of the play that is only enhanced by Kazan’s directing choices detailed below.
The review also offers praise for actress Jessica Tandy’s complex portrayal of the character of Blanche. According to Sensenderfer, the immense amount of effort that Tandy put into studying and mastering the “intricacies of neuroses” comes across clearly through her acting. Despite his commendation of Tandy’s nuanced portrayal of Blanche, he viewed Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Stanley to be much less complicated. However, he does recognize that Brando captures some level of complexity through his ability to seamlessly transition from Stanley’s states of “animal brutality” to his states “crude affection,” thus offering a convincing performance.
In addition to Sensenderfer’s largely positive commentary about acting in this production, he offers a keen commentary on the staging of this play and how it contributes to its established realism. He remarks that director Elia Kazan includes an array of “causal characters” as well as street sounds in order to establish a sense of reality. For example, Kazan included a Negro woman neighbor, an old woman selling flowers, a Mexican tamale vendor, and many more causal characters that Sensenderfer details in his review.
Sensenderfer also notes that Jo Mielzener’s setting consisting of the Kowalski first floor flat with its two squalid rooms separated by a curtain, a spiral staircase leading upstairs, and glimpses of the action on the street through the backdrop as aided by lighting design also helps contribute to both the realism of the play and the action of the play itself. It can be gleaned from this description that the apartment where Blanche, Stanley, and Stella resided lie centerstage, while other realistic elements that Kazan included (causal characters and street sounds) both surround this enclosed apartment space and can be subtly seen and heard through the backdrop. Additionally, Mielzener brought in an effective movie trick of scenes changing by blackouts to the production. This represents the introduction of cinematic techniques into theatre as film emerged as a more widespread medium.
In formulating my own conceptual idea for staging this play, I would take note of many of the strengths and weaknesses of the production detailed in Sensenderfer’s review. For example, Sensenderfer lauds the acting in this play, but pays particular attention to Jessica Tandy’s nuanced acting style. About Brando’s role as Stanley, he says, “Mr. Brando's role as the sister's husband is much less complicated yet it has its facets. His transitions from animal brutality to a sort of crude affection are flowing, convincing, never jerked.” In my conception of the play, I would ensure that the acting of the Stanley character is much more nuanced. Ideally, I would want his complexity to come across just as much as Blanche’s does, even if Williams did not intend it this way. One choice that could be made to alter the acting of the Stanley character could be to make certain scenes that were intended to be loud, and intended to represent his “animal brutality,” a little quieter. Stanley’s manipulations of Blanche can, therefore, come across much more subtly. By making these slight alterations to the acting style of the Stanley character, Blanche will come across as less of a victim, but as a strong protagonist faced with an equally strong antagonist. This directing choice would parallel the feminist movement of our time, as it is a movement that strives to attain equality between the sexes rather than placing sole emphasis on the female character.
Sensenderfer also points to Kazan’s effective use of about half a dozen causal characters as well as street sounds in order to establish an air of realism in this production. These causal characters were extremely diverse, while the original main characters in A Streetcar Named Desire are all white. In formulating my conceptual idea, I would also include a diverse cast of causal characters that surround the dingy Kowlaski apartment. Sensenderfer mentions that there is a spiral staircase leading up to a floor above the Kowlaski first floor apartment. Some causal characters could even be shown living in an apartment upstairs. Perhaps they could be shown reacting to the violence downstairs or to some of the outdated statements made by the Blanche character representative of the “Old World.” Though having these characters in the outside world move freely and react to things heard from the Kowlaski apartment could help contribute to the realism of the play, there could be some merit to having them freeze in place or leave the stage entirely at certain points in the play. For example, when Blanche reflects on Belle Reve and appears to long for the past, it could be interesting to show the entire world stop around this apartment, representing Blanche’s denial of reality. Additionally, when Blanche reaches a point of insanity at the end of the play, all the causal characters could leave and street sounds could stop. This directing choice would introduce abstract rather than entirely realistic elements to the play, and would serve to highlight Blanche’s mental state
The original review of the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Ethel Barrymore Theater by Brooks Atkinson similarly lauds the play as Sensenderfer did. In particular, this review points to clarity of performance and the clear relationship between acting and playwriting. It similarly discusses the many shades of humanity that Tandy brings to the performance, while only giving a small nod to Brando and other actors in the play, acknowledging that characters apart from Tandy’s are, too, acted with “color and style.” The review comments specifically on the amount of time that the Blanche character had on stage, stating that “She is hardly ever off the stage, and when she is on stage she is almost constantly talking—chattering, dreaming, wondering, building enchantments out of words.” The review does not refer to Tandy’s “long” presence on stage as a necessarily negative quality of the production, however, though it does criticize the play itself for being to long. While Atkinson admires the intangible quality of Williams’ writing, he does say, “not all those words are essential.”
Atkinson also points to the intangible quality of the environment that Mielzener captures through his stage and lighting design techniques. He states, “Jo Mielzener has provided a beautifully lighted single setting that lightly sketches the house and the neighborhood. In this shadowy environment the performance is a work of great beauty.” Sensenderfer’s review, on the other hand, did not mention these light sketches, but rather mentioned the glimpses of reality that could be seen through the backdrop through the aid of lighting design. It is likely this light sketching by Mielzener in this production that serves to highlight the performance itself, rather than placing emphasis on the outside world through rigid boundaries on the set. The shadows also serve to accentuate the various moral ambiguities presented in this play. Lighting design likely did not depict clear boundaries between light and dark onstage, because the characters themselves, particularly those of Blanche and Stanley are so complex. Neither Blanche nor Stanley is wholly light or wholly dark.
Atkinson’s original Broadway review further aids my conception of the play. Because Atkinson focuses on the success of the various intangible qualities of Williams’ work that this production evoked, I would focus on making these qualities come alive in my production of this play. I would first ensure that all characters on stage could capture the “intangible,” not just Blanche. Thus, I would make many of the same alterations in acting as detailed previously in my response to the Sensenderfer review. Additionally, I would perhaps shorten the play as well as Blanche’s stage time, removing moments where Blanche simply seems to be “chattering” and paring the play down slightly to the most crucial moments. This could also allow for more silence in the play, an element that could heighten the sense of intangible tension that Williams had intended to pervade throughout his work. Slightly reducing Blanche’s time on stage could also introduce a greater sense of equality in the universe of the play as discussed in my previous conceptual idea. The introduction of more nuanced acting to the Stanley character combined with Blanche’s reduced stage-time could establish a greater sense of ambiguity and tension in this play, leading audience members to ask themselves: Who really is the protagonist? Is it necessarily Blanche?
The intangible quality of Mielzener’s lightly sketched shadowy environment that Atkinson’s could even be further enhanced. For example, maybe the walls of the apartment could be transluscent, allowing for light to pass through, but for a clear view of the outside world to remain unseen by those in the house. This would provide little tangible separation between the main characters and the outside world. This set and lighting design choice could be a commentary on Blanche’s inability to face reality, even though it is right in front of her.
Both Sensenderfer’s and Atkinson’s reviews lend themselves to the conception of ideas that blend elements of realism in drama with more abstract features. Both the tangible elements of the setting that this play takes place in, and the intangible qualities of the characters must be reflected through changes in acting, lighting, and set design. This is because the current landscape in theater is leaning towards the abstract and the ephemeral, though many elements still remain grounded in reality. Additionally, it seems as though Williams did not intend for this play to be wholly realistic, but he instead intended for it to capture a certain mood, and the nuanced mental state of his protagonist. The ambiguity that Williams’ play embodies can also be elevated through more gender parity in the acting of Blanche and Stanley in particular, reflecting the direction of our current feminist movement.
Atkinson, Brooks. First Night at the Theatre. Review. New York Times 4 Dec. 1947: n. pag. Print.
Kolin, Philip C. The First Critical Assessments of A Streetcar Named Desire: The Streetcar Tryouts and the Reviewers. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (1991): 61-63. Web.